Hillsdale Collegeeandersk / Flickr

Earlier this week, I wrote about the clash between Hillsdale College’s stated values and the close ties that it has cultivated with the Trump administration—and I asked Hillsdale faculty, students, and alumni to send me their dissents or to share their own concerns about their institution in light of the recent commencement speech Mike Pence gave there.

Dozens of Hillsdale students and alumni sent almost uniformly thoughtful responses that underscore why the institution’s best qualities are very much worth celebrating and conserving, and rebut the canard that principled conservatism is dead. An outright majority came from people who identify as conservatives but feel deep misgivings about Hillsdale’s present approach to Republican Party politics.

Most emailers believe that there are “two Hillsdales.” One is experienced by its undergraduates, who enjoy many superb professors and classmates of principle who value deep learning, reflection, and nuance.

The other is driven by administrators, who ally Hillsdale with some of the least thoughtful voices in what is now inaptly called the conservative movement and the Republican Party to better fundraise off its loyalists. (Fundraising is particularly important at Hillsdale College compared to other liberal arts schools because it declines to accept federal funds; the independence that allows would seem to be somewhat diminished insofar as it requires close ties to one political faction.)

The emails that follow are arranged by class year, and edited for length and style. I’ve removed the names and identifying details from these letters, to ensure that the correspondents could speak freely. This article will conclude with an observation that may occur to attentive readers.


An incoming Hillsdale freshman writes:

I chose Hillsdale because I loved the personal experience through the admissions process and the values the school represents. "Pursuing truth and defending liberty" are two ideas I hold near to my heart. I am disappointed to see Arnn continue to prop up a president who does not share these values. As a young conservative who loves reading and listening to Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg, and David French, I can say I love to see taxes cut, regulations destroyed, and judges I like appointed.

These are things that would come if Rubio or Bush were president. The damage Trump does to the conservative movement outweighs his good. I would rather a president be strong against Russians, disavow Neo-Nazis, and open his arms to legal immigrants than cut my taxes. While I have not spent a school day on campus, I think I understand many students see this. They understand the president is a morally corrupt clown. I do not think students love Trump like his most fervent supporters.

A Hillsdale senior writes:

I am majoring in politics, and I wanted to say I completely agree with your article. I've been Never Trump since the beginning, and I'm really disappointed that Dr. Arnn has tied my school so closely to the current administration.

The argument is one that happens at Hillsdale very often. The usual defense of Arnn's tying us to Trump goes along the lines of “don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” but that is just utilitarianism. The larger scale argument also largely mimics Dennis Prager's point here, but that doesn't justify not even acknowledging that his critics have a point about Trump's moral and philosophical problems.

Hillsdale is slowly morphing from a school that I was proud to go to into one that I'm embarrassed to attend. It's been going on for a while, but recently it has been accelerating. I really appreciate you writing an article that speaks to what myself and many other Hillsdale students think. Hillsdale is going to lose our credibility if this trend continues.

A current student writes:

Your article reminded me of my first semester when my professors taught me these wise words of Cicero: “The influence of moral right is so potent, that it eclipses the specious appearance of expediency.” I'm afraid Arnn doesn't practice what professors preach here at the College.

His inexcusable posture towards the Trump administration must be, as you say, driven by utilitarian concerns. The GOP is good for the endowment––it's as simple as that. Arnn has a lot of skin in the game. His reputation is built on his success as a breadwinner. This role earns him respect and an exorbitant salary from of the administration, though many of us, students and faculty, remain unimpressed.

Says another current student:

First, thank you for writing the article. There are indeed a significant number of current students and recent alumni who are deeply concerned about the things you mentioned in your piece, and with any luck it may help to instigate more genuine and fruitful discussion on the issue; something which has (unfortunately) often been lacking between the administration/student government and the rest of the student body.

I do see a deep problem with the College’s relationship with the Trump administration, on at least two counts. First, Trump himself represents many of the absolute worst elements of the right wing in America (I do not say conservative, because they aren’t conservative in any authentic sense).

And, this isn’t simply his sexual escapades and uncomfortable flattery of certain tyrannical rulers; it’s the fact that he fundamentally lacks any semblance of a consistent understanding of conservatism, and has consistently failed to demonstrate the ability to conduct reasonable and respectful political discourse. Many of his policies, and virtually all of his methods and tactics, are repugnant to the values that Hillsdale teaches.

Second, Pence: whatever could have been said about his career in Indiana politics, he’s rarely risen above craven sycophancy throughout the campaign and administration. The reality is that in all likelihood Pence has exerted no moderating influence on Trump (if he has, and this is the moderated version, then God help us), while he has provided false legitimacy to Trump, largely among the evangelical voter base. It is, however, unsurprising that someone who lacked the moral courage to oppose Trump’s many faults before the election would not suddenly find the fortitude to do so once in the desired position of power.

One of the more prevalent arguments in favor of Pence that I have heard on Hillsdale campus is that because of his high office, he deserves our respect and we ought to feel honored by his visit. This position, to me, is vacuous. Genuine respect (as distinct from basic civility) is earned, and this is especially true when the person in question holds a high office. Where the normal standard for respect is that the person in question be a good and virtuous human person (or something like this); for a man in high office to deserve respect he must display wisdom and prudence, and perform his duties with excellence. Neither Trump nor Pence have done this, and so the fact that they hold high office (in what I regard as an unworthy manner) is not a source of honor. Rather, it is a high standard they have failed to meet.

It is also my opinion that, even on a pragmatic level, associating with the administration in any meaningful way is a mistake for the college. Hillsdale’s mission (and, let me be clear, the faculty that I encounter in my disciplines fulfill this admirably) and belief has always focused on the importance of a liberal education to human flourishing in general, as well as to good political discourse. What characterizes ‘Trumpism’ all too often is a sort of weaponized ignorance that might occasionally win political battles but which will inevitably undermine the foundations of authentic conservatism and any just political order.

In the terms of my discipline (philosophy), what Trump is doing is leading the regress of conservatism into little more than emotivism. It is this, more than his personal moral failings, that is the core of why the current administration and Hillsdale College ought not be allies, even uneasy ones. Ultimately, the internal rot that is Trumpism will do far more harm than any short-term goods achieved by defeating Hillary Clinton.

Hillsdale will survive the Trump administration, but it will do so only because what the college is actually doing most of the time is quite different from the public image. The faculty are mostly incredible, and there’s plenty of room for healthy disagreement in a meaningful and profound way. I, and many others, have experienced tremendous intellectual growth in our time at Hillsdale. When I criticize the college, it is because I love it and what it can be, at its best.

Ultimately, I think its relationship with the administration represents a tragic loss of opportunity—the opportunity to show a much better kind of conservatism, one centered around the timeless, beautiful, and true things that it aspires to, rather than on many of the basest impulses of the American right. Hillsdale has a lot to offer, but right now it is failing to do that in pursuit of very short-sighted political goals.

Yet another current student writes:

I am very glad the hypocrisy of the administration at Hillsdale College when it comes to Trump and Pence has been brought to light, as we are not allowed to directly criticize the administration in the college’s student newspaper. This hypocrisy runs much deeper than just political utilitarianism despite the guise of pursuing “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” The administration often chooses a more authoritarian approach when it comes to dealing with students and opinions differing from those of the donors. Often the administration will put forth the concept that they are teaching us to be free, but not giving students very much freedom at all. I have a laundry list of experiences with the administration that reflect this hypocrisy.

A graduate from Hillsdale’s Class of 2018 writes:

The moral tensions that you broach in your article are ones that I felt viscerally during my tenure as a Hillsdale student and now as a graduate. The Hillsdale College that advertises on conservative talk radio and Fox News, the one I internally label "Rush Limbaugh's Hillsdale," is not the Hillsdale College that I experienced.

It was in the trenches of Hillsdale College that I received an invitation to participate in the tradition of a humble community engaged in honest and unflagging pursuit of a greater understanding. The path offered remains intellectually and even existentially perilous, but it is nonetheless a route that I would not forsake. This is the ideal form of what Hillsdale can offer to its students and share with the world at large.

"Rush Limbaugh's Hillsdale" is but a severe adulteration of this form, and all frustration I have with the college stems from the fact that the administration does not actively dispel this reputation, but rather perpetuates it by doing things such as inviting Mike Pence to give a commencement speech. Of course, I am not naive to the financial reasons for why this is so, but this is in no way a relationship that I endorse.

For the sake of brevity I'll refrain from utter diatribe against what you aptly titled the "transactional alliance" Hillsdale has with its donor base. I merely want to indicate that there are at least some concerned students and professors who are not at all ignorant of this tension and that the values pursued at Hillsdale College do in fact transcend the unwanted approbation of talking heads and debatably "oleaginous" politicians.

Says another 2018 graduate:

The graduation speech from Pence that provided the basis for your recent article, 'Is Hillsdale College Gaining the World and Losing Its Soul?', was my graduation. I would like to give you an account of the internal debacle that was the selection and speech of Vice President Pence.

An important thing to note is the separation between the image of Hillsdale and the true nature of what is taught there. The 'political, conservative bastion of freedom' is largely the promotion of the administration. Some believe this is to draw more donors as well as children of very conservative families. I am not claiming that we do not have conservatives on campus, for I would say a large portion would identify as such.

But these are the conservatives who cherish the inherent value and virtue in education. Professors and students alike are moreso apolitical and care about debates of free will vs. determinism, or spending a day to watch students perform Shakespeare. We are crazy about ideas, not contemporary politics. Students do not come to Hillsdale for pragmatic, political ends, sans a few individuals who want nothing more in life than to be a politician. And these select few are the only students who wanted someone like Pence to deliver our graduation address.

The address is typically selected by the student committee that consists of the nominated president, VP, secretary and treasurer of the senior class. Last year we selected a Dante translator, to give you a frame of reference.

However, this committee failed to find a speaker for reasons I would chalk up to poor choices. In a pinch, Dr. Arnn pulled a few strings to secure Pence as a speaker to bolster the "conservative heaven" image. The tone of the student body upon hearing the announcement was depressed. We knew what was coming—a pandering speech of no substance or content which would throw Hillsdale onto the political stage. If one could see the audience of graduating seniors during Pence's speech, one would see bored, uninterested students who were occasionally awoken and coerced into standing to clap, or students shaking their heads, smirking with discontent to fellow graduates. If it were not for our politeness and respect for his position, and the high energy nature of his speech, we would have remained seated.

A 2015 graduate of Hillsdale writes, “You have put into words what I have thought since Larry Arnn endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 election.”

Says another 2015 graduate:

I appreciated your recent article highlighting the inconsistencies in the school's ethos. Many alumni remain painfully aware of the dissonance between the values that the administration claims to espouse and the reality of how it has prostituted itself to the Republican Party and its appendages.Though your article mainly draws attention to more recent events, this has proved an ongoing problem at the school; it has simply come into sharper focus in the last few years with ascent of Republicans like Trump and Pence. In short, I think the concerns you raise are well-founded. Not a few alumni agree.

Unfortunately, most of us lack the necessary clout (monetary and otherwise) to sway the administration's policies on these matters. If you publish any more on this topic, you might consider a couple additional avenues that (I say this as someone very familiar with Hillsdale's culture) would be poised to stir up impactful discussion:  

First and unsurprisingly, the tensions you emphasize rarely receive fair debate on campus. As one example, the administration reportedly shot down an attempt by the school newspaper to discuss the merits of Pence's invitation to speak at graduation.  

Second, it is worth noting the relationship between Arnn's political philosophy (and by extension, much of the Politics Department, the department with which he is most closely associated) and the college's policies. They are firmly entrenched in "West Coast" Straussianism: a breed of conservative political thought that frequently strives for hard political influence, often at the expense of ideals. In other words, a sometimes cut-throat conservative transactionalism. Given this (in my view, gravely mistaken) set of assumptions, it is only natural for the college to cozy up to the current Republicans in power.

I can personally attest that this is not what many of us signed up for when we chose Hillsdale as seniors in high school. Many of us were understandably drawn to the ideals of virtue, character, and truth in which the college cloaked itself. Sadly, that vision has soured somewhat, and now, like it or not, the Hillsdale name follows the alumni around, coloring us in light of the college's growing reputation.

Now as a graduate student well outside Hillsdale's bubble, I have had to repeatedly give awkward defenses when the question of my undergraduate experience comes up, including during applications to graduate programs. Hillsdale's penchant for putting itself in the spotlight places the alumni––at least those who do not go off to work in the current federal government––in the uncomfortable position of having to defend its embarrassing behavior. Had some of us known at the time that the administration would celebrate Trump et al. despite all their moral and political pyrotechnics, we might have reconsidered.

I sincerely hope you or someone else will continue to put pressure on this institution for its hypocrisy; for all the administration's stubbornness, the college is keenly aware of its public image as a citadel of conservative virtue. As a school and community, our alma mater has many excellent qualities. It's a shame that the administration's questionable posture has begun to overshadow those qualities.

Says a 2014 graduate of the college, “I feel it my responsibility to tell you that many––I think even a majority––of Hillsdale’s faculty, staff, alumni, and students feel the same way as George Will, and notice the contradiction that you highlight between mission and method. Additionally, many Hillsdale alumni are out there doing great things and making improvements towards a better world. It’s a wonderful school that challenges its students and is becoming an intellectual powerhouse.”

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.”


While this correspondence speaks most directly to Hillsdale College itself, it seems to me that it also says something damning about what one must do to win support in what is inaptly called the conservative movement. That is to say, even students who are critical of Hillsdale’s relationships with people like Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Rush Limbaugh describe a place that conservatives ought to love even without those ties—a traditionalist Great Books curriculum, an emphasis on Christian virtue, lots of right-leaning faculty members and students, an orientation toward learning enduring truths and wisdom. And some donors clearly to give to reward and sustain those qualities.

However, nearly everyone seems to agree that the institution would take a big hit to its fundraising if it kept educating as is, but parted ways with Trump, Pence, Limbaugh, and other right-wing populist pols and entertainers.

If Arnn is compromising Hillsdale’s soul through his approach to fundraising and marketing, his approach is shaped by a larger decadence in movement conservatism, where much of the donor class—and here I refer to both very wealthy patrons and small money donors—feel most inspired to give by that which ought to be least inspiring.

That donor problem is common elsewhere in the conservative movement. If you can describe examples, or have any insights into it, email conor@theatlantic.com––perhaps there’s a way to bring about something better.

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