8 Jul 2010, 6:59pm
Objectivism
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Staying the Course: ARI 25 Years Later

Please note: I am writing this as I listen, any items in quotes (often with ellipses where I missed parts) are fragments I am typing in realtime.  If anything is unclear, please let me know.  I have endeavored not the change the meaning of anything said.

It’s easy to forget how hard it is to keep any organization together and functioning for 5 years, let alone 25.  Keeping the mission and vision true, and having the integrity to continue moving an organization in a consistent direction is hard.  Tonight, we’re hearing from Michael Berliner, Board Co-Chair and Yaron Brook, President and Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

“We were never once tempted to compromise, and it’s easy to compromise.  Given what we were facing culturally, it took a lot of effort not to water down anything.” – Michael Berliner, during the Q&A session this evening

The Birth of ARI

What are the pre-Institute days, and how did it come about?  There was  meeting that Ed Synder called in 1983, after trying (and failing) to get a position for Dr.Peikoff at a philosophy department, and he decided it was time to make an effort around academia and the culture.

“Ed was a real entrepreneur, a can-do guy, and he was going to do it and no one was going to get in his way.  The intellectuals had the typical reaction ‘oh we can’t do that, how are we going to do that?’ but Ed wouldn’t listen and he just barreled ahead.” – Berliner

Berliner, speaking on why he was chosen to get started directing ARI, mentioned that he had organizational experience in academia and a PhD in philosophy which was important for giving it credibility.  Additionally, the group felt that Ayn Rand’s name and brand had recognition and value

Organizational Leadership

Michael Berliner commented on the choice of Yaron Brook as CEO of the institute, and mentioned that he wasn’t well know when he was hired.  Brook was (and is) a non-compromiser, Berliner pointed out, and joked that as he was confident that Yaron, as an Israeli, “wouldn’t that anything from anybody”.

Brook was asked by Sean S. whether he expected to see the social change he hoped to achieved in his lifetime, Brook responded “we can start seeing things change in the direction we want to see them change, heading up river… we’re moving in the right direction.  We’re in better condition in some ways than I thought we’d be, and worse than others.  There’s no alternative for the culture but to be successful in the next 20-25 years”.

Emerging Vision

When ARI began, there wasn’t a long range vision.  In fact, the mission of changing the culture when ARI was just one employee in 1985 was extremely daunting.  Yaron commented that, “maybe I was young and naive, but I came in and I was like ‘we’re gonna do this’, and that’s still my attitude.  But I think its important to think in terms of cultural change, and to note that we already have made a difference and Ayn has already made a difference…. the more you go out and talk to people, the more you discover the leading businessmen in America… just successful people out there… have all been inspired by Ayn Rand.  They’re not Objectivists, but they’re better people for having read Ayn Rand.”

“I think America is a much healthier country today, than it would have been without Ayn Rand.” – Yaron Brook

“In 1985 I was surprised if someone knew [who Ayn Rand is], now I’m surprised when someone doesn’t.” -Berliner

Early Memories of the Institute

In the early days, the institute was what Berliner calls “quaint” – the offices were small, minimalistic, and there were no computers… just a phone as far as technology was concerned. The first he was at the office, the phone rang, “Oh great!  It was a call meant for the business who had our phone number before that, and not only that… the business was a massage parlor.  When I took the job I knew I was going to have to do a lot of multitasking”

Berliner’s wife had a full time job doing research, and it was almost like, “hey kids let’s put on a play” at first.

Ed Synder, who was one of the first members of the board of directors supplied fundraiser, lawyer, and accountant staff to help get things started.  The shocking thing, Berliner notes coming out of academia, was that he would call these people up and he would get an answer.

Contrasting the past with today, Berliner remembers what it was like to be by himself getting in at 6am “I’d actually wear a jacket and a tie to work everyday, it’s hard to believe… it was was, kind of quaint, but it was deadly serious and I was on the phone every day multiple times mostly with Harry Binswangers and Peter Schwartz… and we’d discuss the font size of the things we were producing.  We needed to show the world that we were a serious, professional organization… we had to live up to that [Ayn Rand] in every way”.

Today ARI has 17,000 square feet of office space and 40 employees in Irvine and another few hundred square feet in Washington D.C. “and we have professionals doing the selection of fonts” quipped Yaron Brook. “It really is an amazing achievement, going from where we were to where we are today”.

Origins of the Essay Contest

Harry Binswanger came up with the idea of the essay contest.  It began when The Fountainhead was assigned at Berliner’s daughter’s school – and the students took over the school’s newspaper (!)  They didn’t know how widely it was being taught, but they decided to take advantage of teachers’ willingness to teach The Fountainhead.  They also felt the target audience, pyschologically, was perfect since adolescents were tring to answer questions like, “who am I? what’s my relatioship with my peers?”

The Anthem essay contest emerged because teachers started coming up to them at tradeshows, suggesting a contest on Anthem… which Berliner says was a real shock, and one of the first times they didn’t have to initiate it themselves.

Ayn Rand Institute Press

They are reducing their focus on publishing, since this isn’t an area of expertise for the Institute.  Instead, they’re investing in promoting books published by other authors/publishers.  They’ve looked at other think-tanks, and are working on emulating what looks like its working such as finding agents and using them to establish relationships with publishers.  They have some expertise in house, and they need to build expertise to increase the marketing power behind these publications when they do go to market.  In the next year, they’re looking to bring someone in house to market these publications most effectively.  Goals: get them sold, and read by the largest number of people possible.

This is partially a function of the number of new books that are coming out each year, and the necessary division of labor that will make taking these books to market successful.

“It’s still true that books change lives and change minds” – Yaron Brook

Expanding ARI Beyond the United States

The question was about whether ARI has attempted to raise money in India (and other countries).  Yaron comments that he thinks the only way to do that would be to go to India, have contracts on the ground, and really dig in since it is already a fulltime job doing what ARI does in the United States.  ARI gets very few contributions outside the United States (other than Canada), and people want to make a difference where they live.

It’s certainly worth an effort, and Yaron openly invited the audience to approach him if they’re knowledgeable about how to start making these connections.

Looking Forward to the Future

Keith Schact made the point that it probably was impossible to imagine all the programs, initiatives, and campaigns ARI would put together over the course of 25 years… and invited the panel to look into the future.

“In another 25 years, we could really be — as John Allison likes to say – the dominant secular philosophy, if the world allows us to do it.  The changes have been so great at ARI that anything I would guess would probably be too low.” – Berliner

Vision statement for 15 years: Ayn Rand’s ideas, as she understood them, are being discussed everywhere in the culture.

Vision statement for 25 years: Objectivism is the dominant cultural philosophy in the culture.

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Any concrete news on the ARI Campus Program? I’ve read about it in an issue of Impact some time ago, but the article was still pretty vague on some accounts. What about the time plan? Do you know when we will see something concrete related to this program?

Yes, Yaron Brook mentioned the Ayn Rand Campus Program as one of the most promising initiatives the Institute is working on right now, but didn’t (to my recollection) provide any concrete details or dates for the next set of milestones to make it a reality.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Danielle Morrill, Danielle Morrill. Danielle Morrill said: New Blog Post: Staying the Course: ARI 25 Years Later #OCON http://bit.ly/bnNJjC [...]

I think Hong Kong and Macau are good places for ARI to set up an office. Theses two countries are as close to a laissez-faire capitalist system as you can ever get in today’s world.

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