Speaking Of Higher Education

With all the media focus on a handful of “elite” universities, perhaps it’s time (or overdue) to take a look at some of the hundreds of small colleges and universities that dot the country and are most definitely not “woke.” A number of them are religious, and several–like Hillsdale–are proudly “conservative.” (I put quotes around conservative because true conservatives have very little in common with the political movement that has appropriated that label.)

I’ve been aware of Hillsdale for a number of years. I’ve had graduate students who matriculated there, and several years ago I wrote a book about a libertarian organization headquartered in Indiana that–according to its Executive Director– was scammed by Hillsdale and its then-President. I still get –and routinely discard–their slick newsletter.

The New York Times recently did a “deep dive” into Hillsdale’s more recent political shenanigans.

A few days before Thanksgiving 2020, a half-dozen or so people gathered at the home of a Michigan lawyer named Robert E. Norton II.

Norton is the general counsel of Hillsdale College, a small, conservative Christian school in the southern part of the state. One of his guests was Ian Northon, a Hillsdale alumnus and private lawyer who did work for the college. Also in attendance were a couple of state lawmakers, Beth Griffin and Julie Alexander, who represented conservative districts north of Detroit.

Northon would later describe the meeting to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. “Somebody at Hillsdale reached out to me, said they are going to have this little meeting,” he testified. “I went to it. There were a handful of reps there, and then Giuliani called in.” That, of course, was Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor turned personal lawyer to President Donald J. Trump.

Hillsdale was already well connected to the Right. Northon had worked for the Amistad Project, an “election-integrity watchdog” that the Times reported “emerged as a primary partner in the Trump campaign’s election-fraud litigation.” He’d been a vice president of the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based Rightwing philanthropy that has funded groups pushing voter-fraud conspiracy theories.

And most prominent was Hillsdale’s president, Larry P. Arnn. Over two decades, Arnn had fashioned the college as an avatar of resistance to progressivism, all the while amassing relationships with many of the influencers and financiers who were transforming conservative politics in America. By the time Trump swept into the White House in 2017, Arnn had made Hillsdale an academic darling and supplier of philosophical gravitas to the new right.

So prominent was Arnn that he was mentioned as a possible education secretary before losing out to Betsy DeVos, part of a wealthy Michigan family of major conservative donors and Hillsdale patrons. (Her brother, the private-security contractor Erik Prince, is an alumnus.) Hillsdale graduates became aides in the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill and clerks at the Supreme Court. (“We have hired many staff from Hillsdale,” says Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to Trump’s vice president and Arnn’s longtime friend, Mike Pence.) In the Covid years, the backlash against school closures, mask mandates and diversity programs made education perhaps the most important culture-wars battleground. Hillsdale was at the center, and nowhere more than in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis frequently invoked Hillsdale as he sought to cleanse the state’s schools of liberal influence. “How many places other than Hillsdale are actually standing for truth?” he said at a 2022 Hillsdale-sponsored event in Naples, Fla.

The Times article explored the way in which this small Michigan college got mixed up in the plot to subvert American democracy, and it certainly makes for fascinating reading. But Hillsdale is hardly the only small religious institution providing an academic environment actively indoctrinating students against progressive political beliefs.

There are some 900 Christian-affiliated colleges in the United States, and while not all of them emulate Hillsdale, those that  pride themselves on turning out “conservative” students collectively educate thousands of young Americans–far, far more than matriculate from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Chicago, et al.

I suppose pointing this out is a form of “what-aboutism.” I certainly do not intend it as an argument that all is well in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League; there is plenty of hypocrisy masquerading as inclusiveness on those campuses, and the fact that their graduates are over-represented in government and academia makes them proper targets for evaluation and–when warranted– criticism.  

I just think that criticism should be–in the immortal words of Faux News– “fair and balanced.” For every Harvard graduate, there are probably twenty from schools like Hillsdale, Oral Roberts and Liberty– and their graduates are the ones passing anti-gay and anti-women measures in state legislatures around the country.