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Intellectual Loners Gather to Share Ideas, Facilities

June 24, 1987|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — Conference Room 111A in the chancellor's complex at UC San Diego occasionally fills with an unlikely assortment of people who are experts on subjects that are as diverse as they are obscure.

Mary Stroll is a medieval historian looking into the relationship between the church and state in 12th-Century Europe. Alice Marquis just finished writing a biography of the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Steve Sander is a retired architect who is helping to excavate the site of an old Spanish church in southwestern Peru, and Seymour Cain is a former professor and editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica who plans to write a book on the history of the study of religion.

What brings them together are the monthly meetings (with a break during the summer) of the San Diego Independent Scholars, a 75-member group of free-lance intellectuals. None of the people who belong teaches or does research at a university; they work strictly on their own.

The nonprofit organization functions as a support group for its members and gives them a forum to present their research. It has also helped lead an effort to create a nationwide network of independent scholars.

But some members, including Cain and his wife, Betty, say they joined the group primarily for the intellectual and social stimulation it offers. "I haven't found anyone (in the group) who could help me in the field I'm working in. But I'm impressed by the talent of the people involved," said Cain, 73. "They're bright people who are interested in things most people are not interested in."

"You hear very interesting talks about the most diverse subjects," agreed Sander, 75. A longtime amateur archeologist, he added that "a lot of people (in the group) are senior citizens who are pursuing (intellectual) hobbies for the first time."

However, Stroll said that while "many people join to help satisfy a simple intellectual curiosity, some of us are more interested in hard-headed research. For us, it's not just a matter of getting together and hearing an interesting talk, but getting together to facilitate serious scholarship."

Stroll explained that many of the group's members obtained graduate degrees after they were middle-aged or older and found it difficult to obtain teaching positions. "They've reached an age where they're not as competitive as they might be" within academia, but are still interested in doing serious research in their fields of expertise, she noted.

Stroll, 55, the group's current president, is an example. A top undergraduate in medieval history at the University of Iowa, she had her choice between a graduate scholarship at Columbia University and a Fulbright Scholarship to Austria when she graduated in 1955. "But I gave the whole thing up and got married," she said with a smile.

In the late 1960s, with her children older and more independent, Stroll went back to school at UC San Diego as a graduate student in history. "My first class was on church and state relations in the 12th Century, and after all that time my love for the field came back," she recalled.

Stroll obtained her doctorate in history from UC San Diego in 1975. For a time she taught at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but that forced her to live separately from her husband, and after a year she returned to her home in La Jolla and pursued historical research on her own.

It didn't take her long to realize that she was at a disadvantage compared to her counterparts in universities. "Independent scholars frequently work in isolation, so they don't have the stimulation of (interacting with) other people working in the same field, or using (colleagues) as a sounding board," Stroll said.

In addition, librarians are sometimes reluctant to allow independent scholars to examine key special collections. And it is also somewhat harder for independent scholars to publish their research in scholarly journals, according to Stanley Chodorow, dean of arts and humanities at UC San Diego.

A university job is "the stamp of approval of an institution," said Chodorow, who has lent support and advice to the independent scholars' group here. "Some independent scholars are successful (in publishing their work), but you have to establish a reputation to do it, and that's easier to do if you're affiliated with an institution."

A Surrogate

To address such problems, Stroll, Marquis and Joy Frieman founded the San Diego Independent Scholars in 1982. "I felt that I needed something like a surrogate academic department, where there would be colleagues I could show my work to, and where I could serve the same function for someone else," Marquis said.

Marquis is another member of the local scholars' group who married at an early age and drifted away from the academic world. She and her husband purchased the Star News newspaper group here in 1961 and sold it in 1972.

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