Monday, April 18, 2005 | This is part one in a four-part series.

The task of building a better world is … well, what can we call it? Challenging? Impossible? Grandiose? Foolhardy? No argument from most people on those labels. But despite its seeming hopelessness, it is, after all, the only game in town. We make it better, or else.

Whatever one might think about the improbability of ever improving human affairs, an organization long centered in La Jolla finds that challenge infinitely fascinating and has pioneered a number of developments that have indeed had a beneficial impact on how people live together. That organization is the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute – WBSI.

One of these top scholars was Carl Rogers, often regarded as America’s most influential psychologist, who played a key role in the founding and development of the institute.

Rogers’ senior colleagues at WBSI included psychologists Abraham Maslow, Charles Osgood, Lawrence Solomon, Sigmund Koch and Jack Gibb; philosophers Abraham Kaplan and Andrew Feenberg; social psychologists Theodore Newcomb, Irving Janis and Alex Bavelas; political scientists John Raser and Richard Schneider; sociologists Tom Gillette and Hall Sprague; education researcher Garry Shirts and documentary filmmaker Bill McGaw.

The group was wholly comprised of counter-conventional thinkers, drawn to WBSI because their ideas were welcome in that company.

To explore ideas that departed from the mainstream

The journey of any independent institute, however, is always rocky. Its strength – the ability to take risks universities and other institutions cannot afford to take – is of course also its weakness. Even the most influential ones, from the Bauhaus to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, have short lives. WBSI is no exception. It has experienced several incarnations, including one decade of dormancy. In some years its staff numbered 70, in others, seven.

Although struggle characterizes most independent institutes, they are nevertheless vital to the progress of our civilization. Indeed, we are dependent upon independent scholarship for the major achievements of society. If one were to chart the great ideas that have deeply affected the progress of civilization, one would see that they come almost entirely from independent scholars, or small independent institutes. Darwin, Freud, Marx, Gandhi, Einstein and Edison were all working alone or in small, independent groups, such as Freud’s Vienna Institute, or Edison’s lab. They had usually attended universities, and some returned to them, but it is no accident that at the time of their major breakthroughs, that is not where they were.

Universities are almost never the sites of such giant contributions, because that is not the role of institutions of higher education. While some faculty members rail at the lack of university support for their creativity, they miss the point. Their most original, groundbreaking (and inevitably disturbing) creativity is incompatible with the role universities must play.

Universities serve as the bulwark against barbarians who would shut down inquiry and scholarship. They are the storehouses of knowledge, guardians of the disciplines, educators of the young and protectors of academic freedom. Their responsibilities in these areas require them to remain in business indefinitely; therefore they cannot risk great change. They must be relatively conservative if they are to last forever, honoring their degrees and tenure commitments, and remaining strong enough to fight those who assault freedom of inquiry. Moreover, even the smaller research universities house tens of thousands, and scale is the enemy of innovation.

Universities focus on manageable creativity

The discovery of DNA by Cambridge University professors James Watson and Francis Crick is often cited as the example of a major breakthrough that took place at a university. But by the time of that achievement, there were a thousand researchers working on it. Had they not made the discovery when they did, Linus Pauling would probably have made it a few weeks later. But the paradigm-shifting discovery of genetics, in which the identification of DNA was part of a long line of developments, was created by Gregory Mendel, working alone in the garden outside his monastery room.

Many times our institute has been visited by university leaders who would confide to me that whatever WBSI program they might have been looking at, whether it was pioneering online distance education or researching leaderless therapy groups or any number of other innovative efforts, they could never have undertaken such work at their universities.

The next three articles in this series on WBSI will explore some of those innovations that probably could only have come from an independent institute. The following articles will run in Voice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Richard Farson is a psychologist, author, president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute,

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