An Anchor to Windward

(At the end of a ceremony at the Mackinac Center's headquarters honoring treasured, longtime supporters John and Margaret Ann "Ranny" Riecker, John Riecker spoke briefly to the assembled guests about the Center’s special niche in the nation’s intellectual discourse.)

Not long after this beautiful building was completed and occupied by the Mackinac Center, I attended a monthly Midland Bar Association meeting across the street at the hotel one evening.

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The speaker was a faculty member at one of our local public educational institutions, and he was speaking generally on the role of lawyers and the political process. During his talk he alluded to the new Center across the street, funded by the "wealthy foundations," "corporate executives" and their families in and around Midland. He cited this "big" think tank’s supposed influence on preserving Midland County’s bias in favor of the Republican Party. During the question period I asked him whether or not he considered the faculty of his own university to be a think tank — let alone that of Harvard, Columbia and the University of Michigan, with billions of dollars at their disposal. He retreated into the smug platitude that university faculties were not political activists, but true intellectuals.

I countered that Mackinac Center fellows were also intellectuals, but of a different variety.

In truth, as Martin Anderson points out in his excellent book "Imposters in the Temple," published some 12 years ago, there are indeed two classifications of intellectuals in America. There are the so-called "academic intellectuals," who include the faculties of leading universities and colleges. Then there are the "professional intellectuals" who people the think tanks like AEI, Brookings, Cato, Heritage, Hoover and Manhattan Institute.

The top dozen private think tanks in the United States employ fewer than 300 fellows, compared to the tens of billions of dollars expended by national media and colleges. As Anderson states, America’s think tanks are a tiny David competing with intellectual Goliaths. He adds that the two classes of intellectuals, the academics and the professionals, coexist uneasily with one another, and they like each other even less. Most academic intellectuals have a degree of contempt for those professional intellectuals who "write for money," referring to such efforts as "popular writing," and implying with the word "popular" that this writing can be comprehended by the general rabble and is thus of a lower order of intellect.

The interesting thing is that while the professional intellectuals are seldom lionized in academic journals and seem to have relatively little status, they are the people who speak to huge, important audiences. Think tank fellows have a great advantage over their intellectual colleagues in the university, because they can devote undivided attention to their research and writing, uninterrupted by teaching loads. Fellows have total flexibility in their work life. Many can set their own schedules and explore at leisure an avenue of research. They are not haunted by deadlines, mandates to "publish or perish" and the infighting that accompanies all faculty classifications and rankings. This is why the influence of think tank intellectuals is bound to grow, and they will become the envy, rather than the adversary, of their academic colleagues.

Martin Anderson cites chapter and verse of this dichotomy later in his book, and I quote:

Being a Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for 20 years has given me a catbird seat to observe the fog of politically correct thinking that has spread over our universities and colleges. Hoover has been an intellectual West Berlin, smack in the middle of a hostile, ideological environment, the object of ostracism, ridicule and verbal abuse. The non-politically-correct thinking of many of the Hoover Fellows so infuriated some of the Stanford faculty that they once even attempted to take control of the Institution. … At the same time, 57 Stanford professors signed a petition demanding that the University either exercise control over Hoover or sever it from the University. The message was clear. Enough of this independent thinking and writing. Submit to the control of the Stanford faculty or leave the campus.

The effort of the 57 professors failed, and Hoover Institution won by a vote of 18 to 15 in Stanford’s faculty senate — but where were the voices of the rest of the 1400 Stanford faculty members when this assault on academic freedom was taking place? There was barely a murmur. One can only wonder whether the present-day campus champions of racial diversity — a praiseworthy cause — would even think one moment about the importance of academic diversity!

In the current milieu of American intellectual thought and teaching, Ranny and I look upon the Mackinac Center as an anchor to windward, a seeker of true economic and political principles, a producer of clear and unambiguous articles and an objective investigator of the deconstructionist and revisionist efforts to alter the history of this nation. God bless your efforts, and thank you for bestowing upon Ranny and me the prestige of your Center.


John Riecker is a longtime supporter of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He and his wife, Margaret Ann “Ranny” Riecker, were recently honored at the Center for their seminal contributions to its success.