A 2013 graduate writes:
Hillsdale is a strange place. I still don't know how to reconcile Dr. Arnn's words and actions with my experience. I believe there is often a dramatic difference between the administration's marketing and the student's experience.
I arrived during Obama's first year in office. Although I felt uncomfortable associating myself with any political party, I considered myself a staunchly conservative Christian. I now see my faith as the most defining party of my life, while I increasingly question the "conservative" qualification. Hillsdale College, to my mind, is to thank for that.
One of my favorite professors would tell the freshmen in his class that students comes to Hillsdale knowing everything, but by the time graduation comes, they wonder if they know anything at all. Many students arrive at Hillsdale wanting to engage in the culture wars, then read works of Dante and Dostoevsky and Faulkner, Nietzsche and MacIntyre, and everything changes. It's difficult if not impossible to see anything enduring and worthwhile in engaging in American politics when you have Alyosha's words in the back of your mind: “Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
With the above quote in mind, I share your confusion over Dr. Arnn's behavior, and I absolutely abhor Pence's political posturing. For a long time I thought Arnn acted as a conservative in order to get funding for the college, and then allowed the professors to encourage an atmosphere of intellectual openness and critical engagement in culture.
Now I'm not so sure Dr. Arnn has this student experience in mind at all. Since the election, I have been reticent to openly share that I went to Hillsdale, or even to wear my college sweater. This has been sad, since my experience was so life-changing. When I think of Hillsdale, I think of deep friendships and intellectual diversity, not political partisanship.
A 2012 graduate writes:
To answer your question simply, I do not see anything dissonant. As Jacques Barzun once wrote, an inconsistency is not the same thing as a contradiction. Cold drinks in summer, hot drinks in winter. Sometimes you need a bad man at the door to keep the worse ones out. And that's what my Hillsdale friends and I voted for and that's what we got. Trump finishes his rallies with the Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you find you get what you need." Trump may not be exactly what my friends and I want, but he's exactly what we need given the circumstances. And we're loving the ride.
Another recent graduate writes:
My spouse and I are both recent (within the last ten years) graduates of Hillsdale. Thank you for your article—it's something that needed to be written.
Despite donating every year since we graduated, since the college formed its unholy alliance with Trump, we have cut off our donations. I cannot express how embarrassed I am by my college's administration throughout the last three years by supporting a misogynistic bigot—the complete opposite of the supposed virtues of the college. Alumni should be banding together to demand better of the Trustees to return the college to its original mission, a move that absolutely should involve relieving Larry Arnn of his duties as president. Thank you for articulating what I have been feeling for a few years.
A graduate from the class of 2010 writes:
There has been a tension between a Hillsdale devoted to the good, the true, and the beautiful (and other high-sounding ideals) and a Hillsdale that utilizes the Republican causes du jour to draw donations to the school for as long as I've been associated with the College, and probably longer. As students, my friends and I joked about the unbridgeable gap between conservatism as we experienced it (reading the Great Books and thinking rigorously about them) and the loud, shallow, angry conservatism of the donors who frequently visited campus for events such as the Center for Constructive Alternatives seminars. Pandering to the latter was what made the school money and allowed the former to proceed at a reasonable cost to the students.
Since Trump's election in 2016, Hillsdale's donor-pandering conservatism has rather embarrassingly exploded into the public eye. I don't think I need to comment further on that.
Instead, I'd like to address your concern that current and future Hillsdale students will be corrupted by the regrettable public endorsement of Trump by Dr. Arnn. As I noted, students in my time were perfectly able to distinguish between our beloved institution's two faces and to side with the more worthy of the two, if we so chose. I'm a pretty cynical person, but I have hope that current and future students will continue to be guided by Hillsdale's wise faculty, who by and large prefer to focus on the eternal things rather than the temporal ones.
Those students who attend Hillsdale mostly to further their conservative political careers existed in my day... but I can't speak for them.
I'm not really sure what else I can write to convince you that the vast majority of present and future alumni have been and will continue to be clear-eyed about the flaws of the institution we attended, while also being thankful for the education we received there and certain that the formation Hillsdale provides its students will continue to be a force for good.
P.S. A fellow alumnus adds that he believes Dr. Arnn has been an excellent president of the College, regardless of his public persona and recent regrettable allegiances. He always spends time with students and cares deeply about the quality of the institution's academic life.
A graduate from the class of 2008 writes:
I have been deeply troubled and disheartened by the administration's level of comfort with both President Trump and Vice President Pence. These concerns are shared by friends who graduated in the same period. Our political views range from socially-moderate libertarianism to Bush-era compassionate conservatism to moderate liberalism. We hoped that Hillsdale's administration would offer a principled corrective to President Trump's mendacity, ignorance, and sheer meanness and to Vice President Pence's willingness to elide these facts.
Though not politically conservative, I am grateful for Hillsdale. I am grateful for its nourishing liberal arts program, its willingness to engage faith as a matter of essential concern without prescribing answers, and an atmosphere that encourages abiding friendships. I hope Hillsdale will continue to cultivate these gifts, even when it means forgoing political influence and financial opportunities. This may be a costly choice.
I hope that the administration will choose it.
Says a 2006 graduate with deep ties to the college:
Suffice to say, the issue of Hillsdale losing its soul hits close to home. And it is one, frankly, that I have been thinking about for years. Like other alums who have commented on your article, I too once took the College's mission at face value and in good faith. I believed that the education I was receiving was unlike any other in the nation. (Of course, that's part of the College's allure––making it feel like it's us against the world.)
But of course, I wouldn't be writing to you if I didn't believe that Dr. Arnn's (and much of the faculty’s and board's) posture toward Pence, the GOP, and this current administration weren't horribly dissonant with the College's purported values. In fact, I believe it's much worse than what you've outlined. (As for the donor base … look at alumni donations versus overall giving. Few may publicly chastise the College, but, in the spirit of "voting with your pocketbook," the alums seem to be speaking with one voice.)
Under Arnn's direction, the College has consolidated hiring, expanded its religious overtones (from largely agnostic to now largely obsequious), leaned into its sense of martyrdom, and done serious damage to the cause of liberty and justice for all. I'd be in awe of his sense of strategy if I didn't think it pure evil. It's been a long and steady build for him to transition the College from a place of inquiry and curiosity to a safe harbor for Straussians, reactionaries, and religious hardliners.
Do I believe his support of the Trump administration will hurt his reputation with supporters—financial or otherwise? No. If anything, it may increase his credibility.
I worry greatly for the health and goodness for my alma mater. I'm also really angry. Angry that a place endowed with such talent would choose to deploy it for narrow-minded and cowardly purposes. I'm angry that it teaches it adherents to speak in absolutes. Angry that it's found a useful idiot in the form of Donald Trump. Angry that my one-time mentors, many of whom should have known better, have fallen under the spell of Power (ironic, considering how many of them can quote Tolkien, Aristotle, Chesterton by heart). I don't know if any of this is helpful for you, but I sense that you're in touch with other alums who feel similarly. If all your piece does is stir our resolve to speak out, then it has done a world of good. So thank you for writing it.
A graduate from Hillsdale’s class of 2004 included me on this email to some of his former professors and classmates:
When I threw my Hillsdale diploma in the trash earlier this month, the many fond memories I have of my time there did not even cross my mind … But when I reflect on the four years that I spent at Hillsdale, there are many things for which I remain profoundly thankful. I remember conversations and books about everything from medieval cathedrals to Plato's philosophy and Stephen Hawking's cosmology. Those conversations and the friendships I made shaped my life. Most importantly, you made my four years in Hillsdale meaningful because you urged me to seek the truth and to pursue it with all my heart.
I have been trying to find a way to speak to the dissonance between these fond memories and what I have learned in my years beyond the conservative bubble. A column by Conor Friedersdorf has voiced several of my concerns, and it offers a perfect opportunity to say why I cannot any longer abide the equivocations and dishonesty that have rotted the soul of American conservatism. Many of you are also Christians, and with you I believe that we share a bond stronger than any college; we share a calling that is diametrically opposed to the lust for power. As Bonhoeffer put it, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
Friedersdorf set out the covert utilitarianism that makes a mockery of Hillsdale's professed allegiance to truth and virtue. This means that I feel no need to say again what should be obvious about Donald Trump and Mike Pence. So if you want to support Pence's promotion of Trump, that is fine, but for God's sake have the courage and honesty to amend your ethics: You believe that any action can be good if it leads to results that you prefer …
My problem with Hillsdale College is that it has provided intellectual cover to a politics based on the self-interested ambition of the few. My disgust has to do with the way that it uses Christianity to sell its vision of the world. While spouting platitudes about liberty, responsibility, and honesty, its current leaders endorse individuals and positions that favor sectarianism and the special interests of their own group …
Even more, my commitment to Christianity makes me offended when Christ and the Christianity of many of America's founders is invoked as a source of power for ideas and movements that reduce liberty and increase poverty in our world. The beauty of Christianity is that it offers a vision of human flourishing far beyond any of the cheap substitutes currently peddled by those trading on fear and anger.
… Whatever decision conservatives make, the book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fools and their folly; and it does not take a Teiresias to predict that sooner or later Trump and his allies will reap what they have sown.
Another 2004 graduate writes:
Arnn, like many university presidents, is the face of the College. But I, and I think many alumni (but not all) know that Arnn often speaks publicly to a particular audience—prospective donors, disaffected conservatives, and so on. He knows his fundraising audience quite well. This is not to say he is lying when he speaks. But it is to say, his audience is not you (or me). Parsing his words as if they are for you is, I think, not terribly useful.
That said, many alumni do take these words seriously, as directed to them, or for them; as words about the College, or the position of the College. And when media reports about them this way, they (perhaps rightly—they are public words, and they are not being twisted or tortured) do convey a particular brand of support for Trump. At times, however, Arnn's support for Trump is not nearly as adoring as some of these remarks suggest. He's quipped in the past, "Someone told me they couldn't vote for Trump because he's no Churchill. And I said, I'm sorry, but Churchill's not on the ballot." That's very much more the negative defense than the positive one; but, it's a different strain of his remarks.
But back to the primary point. Arnn is not Hillsdale. You do not mention a couple of other faculty at Hillsdale who have expressed (enthusiastic) support of Trump, mostly affiliated with the Washington, D.C. program.
But, I find one element curious: What other faculty at the College are supporters? I know many faculty quite well, and I'd put "enthusiastic Trump supporters" in the decided minority of the faculty (and the student body; more on that below). They are mostly conservative, ranging from libertarian to #NeverTrump to grudging lesser-of-two-evils to pragmatic consequentialists. There are some (I know, surprising) moderates and liberals who aren't particularly Republican at all. But enthusiastic Trump supporters? I'd wager it's less than 10% of the faculty.
The rest of the College, then, includes faculty who are teaching Homer and Virgil and Aristotle and Aquinas and Shakespeare and Dante and Eliot and Lewis and Kirkegaard, and the students read these things and learn Latin and perform plays and visit office hours and compose poetry and do the other things that a great books institution does. There is little to suggest that Trump has changed these things.
Consider, too, the student body. In a pre-election poll of 493 students (that's more than a third of the student body), it found the polling at 43% Trump, Johnson 20%, McMullin 11%, Clinton 6%. This is not some kind of Trump-crazed campus. Consider still further a March 2016 campus straw poll: Rubio 43%, Carson 30%, Cruz 19%, Trump 6%, Kasich 2% of 668 respondents (about half the student body).
To return to an earlier point: These words of Arnn's, and understandable disaffected alumni reaction to them, are not synonymous with the mission of the College. If the College were somehow different in kind in the last two years, one might expect a flight of the faculty to Dallas or Wheaton or Thomas Aquinas or St. John's or elsewhere. That is not occurring. (Such flights have occurred at small college in recent years with significant turmoil, like Bryan College.) Instead, it is almost a case of Two Hillsdales. I would encourage you to look at the "other" Hillsdale before believing that it is all one thing.
A 1990s alum writes:
As a Hillsdale student during the Clinton years, I have many memories of professors talking about the importance of moral character in leaders. Other favorite Hillsdale subjects included the rule of law (with no one above it), and the constitution's design (as spelled out in the Federalist Papers) to protect against a populist demagogue.
Even though I left the Republican party in 2008 and now consider myself a progressive, I was still dismayed that when a populist demagogue finally came along—the very caricature of a populist demagogue!—Hillsdale administrators embraced him. This was the moment that Hillsdale, as a respected conservative institution, should have risen up against the bamboozling and corruption of conservatism. Alas, the rot had already set in, and the college capitulated.
Everyone associated with Trump, including those who endorsed and gave him intellectual cover--knowing full well who he was--will have a permanent stain on their reputation.
An alum who doesn’t mention her graduation year writes:
The contradiction you see was a frequent topic of conversation when I was a student. A lot of us felt uncomfortable because it seemed as though there were beginning to be two different Hillsdales: the college, where we studied and learned from an incredible faculty (who really do live the ideals you mention), and the political/public figure the college was becoming, run by an administration that we worried might compromise its values in order to raise money and boost its public standing among political conservatives. Most of the time, now, that doesn't bother me, because the real substance of my Hillsdale education came from the faculty and from my fellow-students.
They are the real deal.
Talk about people who would do anything for each other. Those professors genuinely love every single student who comes into their classrooms and would get up in the middle of a Michigan winter night to go help them if they needed it. The students I went there with are still my best friends, and they always will be, and if I died I know they would raise my kids well. I also know some alums who, for moral reasons, have turned down some big opportunities. For some people, the end sometimes justifies the means, and for others it never does. Ever.
At the moment, I think Hillsdale has not quite found the best way to sort out its identity as an educational institution on the one hand and a public/political institution on the other. The tension/contradiction you highlight in your article has been going on inside Hillsdale for a long time, and will probably continue for quite a while. I don't have a solution.
Finally, a Hillsdale graduate from the Class of 1978 writes, “Yes, the concerns expressed in your article about Hillsdale College are valid. It is human nature, perhaps, to privilege political pragmatism over ideals, but such a decision is intellectually dishonest and morally disheartening.”