A tiny, largely unknown Christian college is at the epicenter of today's dark conservative movement

You have likely never heard of Hillsdale College. It’s a tiny Christian school in southern Michigan, but it’s stealthily worming its way into every conservative movement brewing in the nation. It is quite literally at the epicenter of book banning movements, anti-vaxx and critical race theory (CRT) communities, climate science deniers, and Republican legislation. 

Hillsdale College offers school boards and right-wing policymakers a template for conservative curriculums and attacks on liberalism. The institution espouses that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a hoax and that, according to outstanding reporting from Salon, Russian president Vladimir Putin is a “hero to populist conservatives around the world.”

Hillsdale's “patriotic education,” aka the 1776 Curriculum, is at the base of what many conservative school board members want in place of the books they’re banning and the “CRT” they’re making illegal to teach. 

The frightening thing is that Hillsdale, like a virus unchecked, is rampant. In 2020 the college began building a Center for Faith and Freedom in Connecticut, and last December the school launched the Academy of Science and Freedom in Washington, D.C., to give a voice to three COVID-19 conspiracy theorists—including Dr. Scott Atlas, Donald Trump's former pandemic adviser.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee plans to build 50 new charter schools in partnership with the college, using the 1776 Curriculum to battle “anti-American thought,” Salon reports. 

One parent-turned-conservative educational activist is Jeff Barke, who told Salon he became radicalized (as it were) after spending time at Hillsdale, calling the school a “beacon of liberty” that is “fighting to return America back to its founding roots.” We can only imagine what roots he’s talking about, since many of the right-wing school board parents are refusing to have their kids taught about American history that includes slavery and Jim Crow. 

Barke and his wife Mari are big-time donors to the college. Jeff Barke once sat on the Los Alamitos, California, school board but lost his position after vocally advocating against climate change science. Meanwhile, Mari Barke sits on the Orange County Board of Education. She ran for the seat with talking points around “school choice and parental rights.” She raked in $425,000 for her campaign, much of which came from the Charter Public Schools PAC, a state-level affiliate of the State Policy Network, a coalition of more than 150 right-wing groups that promote model conservative legislation, per Salon. 

Hillsdale was founded in 1844 by Baptist abolitionists and until recently, the 1,550-student college was a liberal arts school—albeit a “citadel of conservatism.”

Per the school’s website, it “operates independently of government funding” and has since the 1980s, which gives it the ability to avoid reporting on student demographics or sex discrimination. 

Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arrn, who came to the college in 2000, got himself into hot water in 2013 when he said state officials made a visit to the campus to determine if there were enough “dark ones” enrolled.

A 2012 Detroit Free Press story said it was the first U.S. college to prohibit in its charter discrimination by race, religion or gender.

Hillsdale has been a virtual feeder for former failed President Trump’s administration, offering up alumni, staff, and conservatives jockeying for spots to speak at the school. In 2009, Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (whose Black card has been unofficially revoked), was hired to help launch a satellite campus in Washington, D.C.

Arnn is a total Trump bootlicker, by the way. When it was time to choose who would serve as Trump's secretary of education, it was Arnn who chose Betsy “I know nothing about education” DeVos.

Arnn also led Trump’s ridiculous answer to “The 1619 Project,” the so-called “1776 Commission,” using it to craft his “patriotic education” blueprint. 

As Politico reported in 2018, most of those who contribute money to Hillsdale aren’t all that well-known. They’re simply acolytes of the gospel of Arnn, and that keeps the money flowing. “They’re just your typical crotchety conservatives,” a Hillsdale student told Politico.

But those same unknown conservatives are funding the people driving trucks into D.C. and Canada to complain about issues that don’t even exist, and rioting on Jan. 6 to overtake the government, and supporting the suburban moms pushing to ban books by award-winning authors, and putting teachers in legal trouble for teaching the truth of American history. It doesn’t matter how unknown they are: They’re discriminating against Americans and impacting people's right to live in their own truths. 

By Rebekah Sager
Daily Kos Staff