conservative think tank with many Princeton ties
low-profile Witherspoon Institute has strong links to the Madison
By Deborah Yaffe
Six years ago, fresh from helping launch the Princeton politics
department's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions,
a group of men with University ties and conservative leanings turned
to a new project.
Out of those conversations grew the Witherspoon Institute, a Princeton-based
conservative think tank that since 2003 has sponsored conferences,
summer seminars, and scholarly research aimed at audiences both
within and beyond the academy.
Witherspoon, which has many friendly ties but no financial or
administrative links to the University, remains low profile. Its
academic focus and educational mission have kept it off the radar
of both liberal and conservative colleagues in the think-tank world,
and it deliberately cultivates what president Luis Tellez jokingly
calls "the nice kind" of conservatism – respectful
of divergent views, committed to serious scholarship, employing
dialogue rather than invective.
But as it tackles topics ranging from stem cell research to constitutional
law to globalization, the institute keeps one eye firmly on the
future: Its summer courses on law, philosophy, religion, and social
science enroll students from high school to graduate school, and
its research grants go only to scholars affiliated with teaching
institutions – "so that we can help them be more effective
in their teaching and that way have contact with the next generation
of scholars," Tellez says.
And although Tellez says he has no plans for a network of Witherspoon
clones, he has offered friendly advice to individuals at Hamilton
College and the University of Texas at Austin who hope to establish
similar autonomous think tanks.
Despite bearing the name of Princeton University's sixth president,
John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the
institute stresses its independence of the University. "Think
tanks really should be independent operations," says McCormick
Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George, a leading campus conservative
and a Witherspoon fellow. "A university shouldn't have a think
tank, just as such, within it."
But cross-pollination between the neighbors is obvious. The four
men who created the institute all were involved with the Madison
program: George, the program's director; and three members of its
advisory board, venture capitalist Donald Drakeman *88, attorney
Stephen Whelan ‘68, and Tellez himself.
The institute's links to the Madison Program, portrayed on both
the right and the left as a conservative beachhead within the liberal
Ivy League, remain strong: eight of Witherspoon's 20 trustees, plus
the spouse of a ninth, currently sit on Madison's board, which is
headed by Drakeman, a former Witherspoon board chair. And the two
organizations receive funding from some of the same right-leaning
In its work, Witherspoon also draws on the University's intellectual
resources. Besides George, the institute's 17 fellows – scholars
who receive financial support from Witherspoon and suggest topics
for its programs – include two other Princeton professors
and three recent Princeton Ph.Ds.
And many of the institute's academic conferences and summer seminars
take place on campus, sometimes with logistical support from University
programs that count Witherspoon fellows among their faculty. Last
fall, for instance, Witherspoon and the Woodrow Wilson School gathered
scholars and politicians to discuss the rise of the Latin American
left; a month earlier, Witherspoon joined campus religious organizations
in co-sponsoring a conference aiming "to equip students with
a set of arguments to defend Christian faith and morality as a valid,
eminently reasonable system of belief."
Another of the institute's relationships – its supposed
connection with the conservative lay Catholic organization Opus
Dei – has spawned Internet chatter. Tellez, a former national
official of Opus Dei, still runs the group's Princeton programs,
and Witherspoon's donors include two foundations with links to Opus
Dei members. Opus Dei's politics were controversial even before
Dan Brown's super-bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, portrayed
the group as a homicidal cabal. But Tellez and other Witherspoon
leaders insist that Opus Dei plays no role in the operations of
the institute, which supports work on the role of religion in society
but has no religious affiliation of its own.
Unlike some prominent think tanks, Witherspoon's focus is education,
not legislative advocacy, says Whelan, who chairs the board. "We're
trying to influence people's thinking, rather than what happens
in Trenton or Washington, D.C.," he says. "We're not seeking
to bring people in and then tell them to go forth and lobby."
Still, Witherspoon's best-known work to date speaks directly to
contemporary political controversies. A 2004 conference on marriage
produced a 47-page booklet, "Marriage and the Public Good:
Ten Principles," signed by 70 scholars from a range of fields
and institutions. The soberly written, copiously footnoted document
urges citizens and policymakers to resist what the signers see as
threats to the institution of marriage from divorce, cohabitation,
the unregulated fertility industry, and pressure to legalize same-sex
The booklet, published in 2006, was praised in the conservative
press, and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas cited it approvingly
during a Senate debate that year on a proposed constitutional amendment
banning same-sex marriage.
The amendment failed, but the marriage booklet had a side benefit:
"It's been a terrific fund-raising tool," Tellez says.
"I think [donors] saw that it was well done, that the scholarship
was serious, that it addressed an issue that is of importance."
Indeed, despite its relative youth, the Witherspoon Institute
has achieved a level of financial viability that many older nonprofits
might envy: Its annual contributions have ranged from $360,000 in
2004 to more than $3 million in 2006. Last summer the institute
moved into an elegant three-story building on Stockton Street, bought
for $1.5 million and renovated and furnished for an additional $1.3
Tellez declines to release Witherspoon's complete donor list,
but in addition to institute trustees, contributors include the
Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the now-defunct John M. Olin
Foundation, known for their support of conservative causes; the
John Templeton Foundation, which funds research on religious and
scientific topics; and the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation, whose
three-year, $750,000 gift – the Witherspoon Institute's largest-ever
donation – helped pay for the new building.
That building is concrete evidence that Witherspoon, an island
of conservatism in Princeton's liberal sea, hopes to grow, says
Tellez: "It's an investment in the future."
Deborah Yaffe is a writer in Princeton Junction, N.J.