Is Hillsdale College Gaining the World and Losing Its Soul?

An institution devoted to “pursuing truth” forges ever-closer ties to a president who constantly lies.

Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College
Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College (Gage Skidmore)

Hillsdale College was founded in 1844 by Christian abolitionists who refused to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or nationality. Today the small liberal arts school in Michigan boasts a net worth approaching $1 billion, a monthly opinion digest that reaches more than 3.8 million subscribers, alumni in high-ranking positions in the Trump administration, significant influence among members of the conservative movement, and a graduation ceremony addressed by Vice President Mike Pence.

These markers help explain the enthusiasm many of its boosters have for Larry Arnn, its president of 18 years, who took over Hillsdale amid a shocking scandal and led it to new heights of money, power, and influence. Its motto is unchanged: “Pursuing truth, defending liberty since 1844.”

But some associated with the institution fear that cultivating ties to politicians and a power-seeking ideological movement will inevitably tempt a mission-driven educational institution to compromise its values, setting a corrosive example for the principled undergraduates it attracts.

Are Hillsdale’s worldly gains imperiling its soul? Pence’s commencement address should be an occasion for its stakeholders to reflect.

Pence began his remarks lamenting to the assembled graduates that it sometimes seems “that we live in an age of grim relativism,” then adding, “This class has seen the power of unchanging truth to change lives.” He praised the education that they had received. “We live in an age when too many disregard the wisdom of the past,” he said, but “you’ve been grounded in the teachings and traditions that are our greatest inheritance as Americans.”

In his telling, President Donald Trump has excelled at managing matters domestic and foreign:

You are graduating at a time of a growing American economy and restored American stature at home and abroad … Faith in America is rising once again. On the world stage, we’ve seen America embracing our role as leader of the free world—with action just this week on Iran and North Korea. And on Monday, America will lead again when we open our new American embassy in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.

He continued:

Faith in America is on the rise because President Trump and our administration have been returning America to the principles that have always been the source of our national greatness and strength. We’ve been expanding freedom, cutting taxes, rolling back the regulatory state, and returning authority to the people and to the states … You’re going to find an America filled with promise, being built anew on a foundation of personal responsibility and individual freedom.

Later, Pence expressed optimism about America’s moral trajectory, observing that though “we live in a time when traditional values and religious convictions are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture—a time when it has become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign religious belief—I believe with all my heart that Americans’ faith in God is growing.”

He added:

Our Founders recognized religious faith as essential to maintaining our republic. In the words of our nation’s first vice president, John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Finally, he told Hillsdale grads that they’re “uniquely suited” and “uniquely called” to renew America’s national life “with your character and with your ideals.”

He advised:

This is an ongoing and monumental task—a task not for the faint of heart or the small-minded. It will require courage and tenacity and greatness of spirit. At times, you will face opposition, even ridicule, for taking a stand for what you know to be right. But to quote Hillsdale’s motto, “Strength rejoices in the challenge.” And remember, the most heroic acts and the greatest feats aren’t the stuff of headlines and fame. They’re actually to be found in the daily choices that you’ll make and the habits that you’ve already begun to form.

Form strong, vibrant, and loving families—the foundation of our free society, where we pass along our cherished values to the next generation. Let me also encourage you to have faith—faith in yourselves, proven by what you have accomplished to get to this day; faith in the principles and the ideals that you learned here, the principles and ideals that bind us together as a people and give purpose to our nation.

What Pence said aligns well enough with Hillsdale’s professed values. But Pence’s words deviate so sharply from his actions that some stakeholders at Hillsdale surely noticed the question-raising dissonances.

Pence purports to believe that “secular popular culture” corrodes that which is most important, and extols religious faith as “essential to maintaining our republic,” yet worked to make a reality-TV star who celebrated greed, Playboy, and Howard Stern—a man with no credible religious convictions—the most powerful man in the GOP and the United States.

Pence purports to lament moral relativism and to believe that moral character is essential to good leadership, but worked to empower an obviously prideful, avowedly greedy, famously lustful, sometimes wrathful billionaire who publicly bragged about adulterous trysts, appeared in a soft-core porn video, and ran an Atlantic City gambling house.

Trump is no one’s idea of a moral man.

Pence purports to champion America as the “leader of the free world,” but works on behalf of a president who extols authoritarians in Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines while denigrating allies in Europe and Canada, undermining NATO, and extending a sordid alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Pence purports to believe that “strong families” are “the foundation of a free society,” but helped to elevate and empower a twice-divorced man who was once estranged from one of his sons, gave a shock jock permission to call his daughter “a piece of ass,” and treated his first wife to tawdry tabloid stories best summed up by Mona Charen: “It requires a particular breed of lowlife to advertise the sexual superiority of one’s mistress over the mother of one’s children. That was Trump’s style.”

Pence purports to believe that integrity is a function of one’s daily habits and choices, and that character and ideals are the path to national renewal, yet he helped to elevate and continues to extol an erratic liar who insults the appearance of women, spreads conspiracy theories about rivals, and tweets in a manner that dishonors his office almost daily.

What’s an earnest young Hillsdale undergrad who is even passingly familiar with Trump’s character and past actions to make of Pence’s selection as commencement speaker, his speech, or his broader work trying to elevate, empower, and lavishly extol a flagrantly immoral president?

If one of Pence’s children or friends behaved as Trump has behaved, the vice president would be praying for the Lord to spare their immortal soul. Yet he still travels the country obsequiously praising the man.

What are we to make of that?

The most charitable explanation is that Pence is engaged in what he believes to be a utilitarian moral compromise, wherein he helps to secure great power for a morally odious man with the expectation that the man will wield power in ways that wind up benefiting the greater good.

In this telling, Hillsdale students wanting to follow Pence’s moral example might calculate who in their business career or civic life is most likely to bring about outcomes they find desirable and work to ally with and elevate that person—even if he or she regularly lies, slanders rivals with conspiracy theories, praises murderous tyrants, disrespects his spouses and children, and professes religious faith only when it might benefit him or her. If the ends are desirable, that justifies the means.

But if Pence is a utilitarian, he certainly isn’t open about it. So following his example, in this scenario, would also entail duplicitously misrepresenting one’s utilitarian moral approach by refusing to acknowledge the flaws of one’s ally and acting as if one is engaged in virtue ethics.

There are less charitable possibilities, too.

I am hardly alone in noticing that something about Pence is amiss. The lifelong conservative George Will is among the many other political observers to have detected the gulf between Pence’s purported values and his actions. Will has relatively recently said of Hillsdale, “By stressing the Great Books and Western civilization, Hillsdale has become a niche success … I think it’s greatly regrettable that it’s only a niche.”

But two days before Pence addressed Hillsdale, the conservative columnist had this to say about the sitting vice president:

The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness, could, Trump knew, become America’s most repulsive public figure. And Pence, who has reached this pinnacle by dethroning his benefactor, is augmenting the public stock of useful knowledge. Because his is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.

He went on to savage Pence for cozying up to another deeply immoral man, Joe Arpaio, the disgraced former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona:

Noting that Arpaio was in his Tempe audience, Pence, oozing unctuousness from every pore, called Arpaio “another favorite,” professed himself “honored” by Arpaio’s presence, and praised him as “a tireless champion of … the rule of law.” Arpaio, a grandstanding, camera-chasing bully and darling of the thuggish right, is also a criminal, convicted of contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to desist from certain illegal law enforcement practices. Pence’s performance occurred eight miles from the home of Sen. John McCain, who could teach Pence—or perhaps not—something about honor.

Henry Adams said that “practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” but what was the practicality in Pence’s disregard of the facts about Arpaio? His pandering had no purpose beyond serving Pence’s vocation, which is to ingratiate himself with his audience of the moment.

He added, “Pence, one of evangelical Christians’ favorite pin-ups, genuflects at various altars, as the mobocratic spirit and the vicious portion require …  It is said that one cannot blame people who applaud Arpaio and support his rehabilitators (Trump, Pence, et al.), because, well, globalization or health-care costs or something. Actually, one must either blame them or condescend to them as lacking moral agency. Republicans silent about Pence have no such excuse.”

The column was notable not just for its content or its author—one of the most staunch, principled, and longstanding members of the conservative movement—but for the response that it elicited from Hillsdale President Larry Arnn in conversation with the talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt.

“Our commencement was great this year,” Arnn said. “Mike Pence came and it went off without a hitch. And everybody, all the kids, did better than behaved themselves. They gave him a standing ovation.” And he added a personal note. “He’s such a nice man, you know. And you know, his speechwriter happens to be a student of mine.” The he summed up the speech:

Mr. Stephen Ford has described to me how that speech and all his speeches work. The speech moves from being gracious to Hillsdale College and talking about the importance of education, to a short period in the middle where he talks about the state of the country, and about the Trump administration, and what it’s done so far, to a longer period at the end that is exclusively devoted to faith. And it moves from faith in general to his personal faith. And that’s Mike Pence. That’s what he does. That’s his—that’s his plan for his life and his plan for his career. And he’s been like that for as long as I’ve known him.

After a couple more clips and asides on other topics Arnn says:

Yeah. So he’s a very interesting guy. He did this incredibly politically gutsy and I think insightful thing because he was running for reelection to the governorship of Indiana. And it was a tight race, but of course, a newer and much less well-known Republican candidate would win that race. And so the betting was he was going to win. And he just—he got an invitation from Donald Trump, and darned if he didn’t take it. And I think that that ambition and calculation in him is to advance those set of things he was just saying.

In other words, he thinks it’s a great country, we’re free to worship God. We ought to do it, but nobody makes us. And he just loves that and I think he’s made it the center of his life. And it’s practiced now. He’s as much a slave to his wife as I am to mine, you are to the fetching Mrs. Hewitt. In other words, there’s no independent existence, right? It’s a wonderful and miserable condition. And you can’t get away from that with him. She just—they’re very close, and she’s very charming, and fun, and they’re just peas in a pod. But his faith is the same kind of thing.

Take a moment to unpack what Arnn is saying: that if you’re a religious conservative who puts faith at the center of your life, faith that manifests in part as utter devotion to your wife, and then you see an opportunity to advance your ambitions and beliefs by praising and empowering a man who, among other things, has been utterly unfaithful and not at all devoted to three wives, the “insightful” and “gutsy” thing for an ambitious person of faith to do is to help him rise to power by tying your fortunes to his and praising his character to the public.

Perhaps I’m confused about the values that Hillsdale teaches to its students when a powerful ally in the Republican Party is not the subject under discussion. But I would have thought if a Hillsdale student were to ask, “Should I travel the country lavishing praise on a flagrantly immoral man to empower him in a way that advances my ambitions?” the answer would be an unequivocal, “No.” But apparently, Arnn would actually say, “Are your ambitions good? Can he win?”

Later, Hewitt asks, “So tell me, Larry Arnn, why did George Will attack—savage him—not attack him, savage him?” The answer is perfectly clear from Will’s column. Will thinks Pence is a phony based on his perception of a flagrant contradiction between his words and actions, and he was morally disgusted by Pence’s embrace of Arpaio, a perfectly understandable reaction to anyone familiar with the sheriff.

Yet Arnn responded:

I don’t know the answer to that. I saw George this week. And I don’t––you know, George Will doesn’t like Donald Trump. A lot of people don’t. And there are things about Donald Trump that I don’t like and a few things that I do. But Pence is—you know, he does what a vice president does.

He boosts Donald Trump. And that’s not false because Mike Pence was not a guy with a political job that was not going anywhere. You get elected twice governor of Indiana, you’re a candidate for president. So he gave up something to join Donald Trump. It means, I think, he means it.

Well, I think maybe George resents that.

I find that answer fascinating.

It acknowledges Trump’s flaws and Pence’s lavish praise of a flawed man, then explains that Pence “does what a vice president does” as if that answers the criticism—as if it’s “all in the game” and therefore moral.

Will rejects both the assertion that Pence speaks in good faith and the notion that extolling Trump is okay because it’s “what a vice president does”—objections any conservative ought to understand, even if they disagree—yet Arnn says Will’s column was perhaps motivated by resentment of Pence, as if Arnn was incapable of discerning a substantive reason for the critique, as if he can’t even conceive of an earnest principled objection to Pence’s conduct.

Here’s the telling exchange that came immediately afterward, with Hewitt also expressing confusion about why George Will wrote that column:

Hewitt: I’ve been thinking about this, because I’m just so startled by it. But let me, if I could take part of your time, I want to read a list so that it is in the Hillsdale archive. This list is Amul Thapar, age 49; John Bush, age 55; Kevin Newsom, age 46; Ralph Erickson, 59; Amy Barrett, 46; Joan Larsen, 50; Allison Eid, 53; Stephen Bibas, 49; Gregory Katsas, 54; Stephen Grasz, 57; Don Willett, 52; James Ho, 45; David Stras, 44; Elizabeth Branch, 50; Kyle Duncan, 46; Kurt Engelhardt, 58; Michael Brennan, 55; Michael Scudder, 47; Amy Eve, 53; Joel Carson, 47; John Nalbandian, 49. They are all confirmed on the federal bench, the appeals bench, and Ryan Bounds, 45; Mark Bennett, 65; Andy Oldham, 40; Britt Grant, 40; Paul Matey, 47; David Porter, 52; Marvin Quattlebaum—the wonderfully named Marvin Quattlebaum—54; Julius Richardson, 42; Richard Sullivan, 54; Ryan Nelson—I think he’s 15, I don’t have his age. He looks like he’s 15. They are all nominated.

Dr. Larry Arnn, these people will defend religious liberty for the next 30 to 40 years at a rate of 400 decisions a year. How can anyone not see this?

Arnn: Yeah, that’s just too good a thing. And you know, one of my students just became number two in the office—what was it called? Office of Interagency Regulatory Affairs under the great Neomi Ra—OIRA.

Hewitt: Oh, she is great.

Arnn: She’s the person who’s called—except she won’t permit herself to be called this—the regulatory czar. She’s what Obama’s Cass Sunstein was. And she just hired one of my students to be her No. 2. And I talked to her about it. And she’s so good. Well the point is, all of those judges—Don McGahn will make the point in public—all of those judges are not only in an age where they’re going to go on for a while, but all of them have done extensive thinking and writing about administrative law, which is the alternative to constitutional law in America today and the scene of the great struggle.

So that’s a direction that’s not just, let’s get a bunch of conservative judges, and not just, let’s get a bunch of Republican judges. That’s, let’s get a bunch of judges who’ve done substantial work on that big issue. It’s amazing.

Hewitt: And who understand the implication of this unelected and largely unsupervised branch, Doctor.

The logic here is clear enough. Neither Hewitt nor Arnn talks as if they believe that good moral character is really essential in an American president—they talk as if they believe that a president who flagrantly exhibits all manner of character flaws and odious behavior can put the country on a trajectory that benefits it greatly for decades if he appoints good judges.

Neither do they seem to believe in opposing the elevation and empowerment of such men on principle. They talk as if doing what’s politically advantageous is obviously the best way forward. The prudent thing is to elect a flagrantly immoral man if he’s going to do things like appoint originalist judges and hire Hillsdale graduates as bureaucrats. In short, they talk as if they believe that the ends justify the means––as if they don’t think Pence has done anything wrong because Pence behaves as if he shares their malleable, relativistic posture, and is willing to be less than truthful with the public to ensure victory.

Will rejects that moral premise, but Hewitt and Arnn can’t even understand that, or so they say. If those are their convictions, so be it—they’d hardly be alone.

Yet I notice that neither Arnn nor Hewitt would recommend that approach when advising Hillsdale students, to whom they commend a more idealistic, principled approach, in which good character is at the core of good leadership and extolling the truthful and virtuous pays dividends.

Can Hillsdale remain a credible vessel for the latter message?

So long as the institution continues on the trajectory along which Larry Arnn is presently guiding it, I expect that Hillsdale graduates will grow marginally more likely to do as their elders do rather than as they say, going forth into the world with marginally more willingness to accommodate themselves to the powerful, to choose and elevate allies based on opportunistic transactionalism rather than character, and to make marginally more moral compromises in order to achieve political outcomes.

Do I have any of this wrong, Hillsdale students, alumni, and faculty? Do you see anything dissonant about Mike Pence’s words and his actions, or between his actions and the values that Hillsdale purports to value? Can Arnn’s posture toward this matter and others like it be defended using the values or principles that he urges on Hillsdale students? How does his at-least-partly transactional alliance with movement conservatism and its donor base affect Hillsdale College, for better or worse?

Emails validating or rebutting my concerns are encouraged—write, and I won’t publish any names without permission.