Photo: Patrick Sikes / Contributed Photo
Three recent headline-grabbing stories illustrate the growing clout of Hillsdale College, the small, deeply conservative Michigan liberal arts school that is coming to Connecticut.
First, Attorney General William Barr made controversial comments comparing COVID-19 lockdowns to American chattel slavery. He did so during a Q&A with Hillsdale President Larry Arnn at the Hillsdale’s annual Constitution Day celebration. The next day, President Donald Trump announced plans to create a “1776 Commission” to write a national history curriculum countering the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Preceding his remarks was a White House panel on the same subject chaired by … Hillsdale President Larry Arnn. Counting Arnn, three of the 10 panelists were directly connected to Hillsdale.
A little over a week later came the biggest of the three, Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett was supposed to be Hillsdale’s commencement speaker last spring until COVID canceled the event. She also gave a lecture at the school’s Washington D..C. campus last year, one of her rare public speaking events since becoming a federal judge. In a school newspaper story announcing Barrett’s selection as commencement speaker, Arnn said Barrett “has been to our campus more than once,” adding, “Many here know her.”
This quick succession of events indicates that Hillsdale’s influence at the highest levels of the federal government, already considerable, is achieving new heights.
Like most Americans, I had never heard of Hillsdale College. Then about a year ago, I began reporting an in-depth story about the extended controversy over the school’s effort to open a religious studies institute in a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Somers. The school, which isn’t affiliated with a church, angered some residents by asserting it is a religious institution and invoking a federal religious anti-discrimination law to override local zoning rules that blocked an earlier, secular project. That led me to do a deep dive into Hillsdale’s history, beliefs and supporters.
What I found surprised and fascinated me. Hillsdale is the Waldo of Republican politics: It’s everywhere. The list of its rich and powerful friends reads like a who’s who of the Republican Party. What supporters especially love is the school’s refusal take any federal and state funding — even Pell grants and GI benefits. Vice President Mike Pence gave Hillsdale’s commencement speech in 2018 and dropped by for “a surprise visit” last year. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at the 2016 commencement and was the featured speaker at last year’s dedication of the school’s new $31 million chapel. Thomas’ wife Ginni used to run Hillsdale’s Washington, D.C., center and served on its board of trustees. Trump considered appointing Arnn secretary of education before settling on Michigan resident Betsy DeVos, whose billionaire family, heirs to the Amway fortune, is a major supporter of the school, along with the other half of the Amway empire, the Van Andel family. DeVos’ brother, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, attended Hillsdale. Last year, Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak become chairman of its board of trustees. The list goes on and on.
The school says its focus is on promoting political, economic and religious liberty and teaching the Constitution — all students must take a course on the document. What it doesn’t say is that its interpretation of the Constitution is unusual and, if adopted, would drastically alter American government and society. In a nutshell, Hillsdale argues that Theodore Roosevelt and especially Woodrow Wilson, in league with early 20th century progressives, undermined the Constitution by creating the “administrative state” — the constellation of government agencies that regulate everything from drugs to the stock market to pollution. Congress, the school says, unconstitutionally delegated power to regulatory agencies. Only through Congress reclaiming that authority and dismantling the administrative state can democracy, freedom and the Constitution be restored, the school says.
Hillsdale never says how far it would take this. Would every regulation, no matter how trivial, be subject to approval by Congress or only the really big ones? Would virtually all federal regulatory agencies be abolished or just some? What is clear is that if the school’s views became law, regulation in all areas would be drastically reduced.
The school is relentless in promoting these ideas not just to its approximately 1,500 students, but in a massive public outreach program — its new center in Connecticut will be part of that effort — that includes free online classes, a free opinion journal called Imprimis with more than 4 million subscribers, a lecture series, public statements and writings of its leaders and professors, and in-person adult education seminars nationwide. The school’s efforts have been a success, especially its online classes. It says about one million people have taken its Constitution 101 course, which spends its last five lectures attacking early 20th century progressivism, the administrative state and what it calls “bureaucratic despotism.”
This effort is about to get even more ambitious. The school is in the midst of a $600 million fundraising campaign aimed in part at further expanding its public education programs. Its regular emails to supporters focus almost exclusively on soliciting funds for this effort. Earlier this year, the school introduced a free online American history course specifically designed to rebut the 1619 Project, which school officials have derided as “fake history” and “un-Americanism” in fundraising emails to supporters. The course’s author was a member of last month’s White House American history panel chaired by Arnn. More courses are on the way, including one on the history of civil rights, the school says. Earlier this month, Hillsdale announced yet another foray into Blue America, a possible satellite campus in Placer County, Calif., near Sacramento.
It’s often said that Trumpism lacks intellectual and policy coherence. Hillsdale appears to be helping fill that vacuum. Trump’s policies on regulation and education, for example, closely mirror Hillsdale’s views, and the school, with its stated reverence for the Constitution, gave Barr’s controversial actions as attorney general legitimacy by inviting him to speak this year at its Constitution Day celebration. Now the school is poised to play a leading role in writing a history curriculum the president wants in all the nation’s schools and gain a second friend on the nation’s highest court.
How Hillsdale’s Blake Center for Faith and Freedom in Somers will fit into the school’s amped-up campaign to spread its ideas — it has yet to announce an opening date or a schedule of events — is unclear.
Whether Trump wins or not, expect Hillsdale’s influence to grow both nationally and in Connecticut.
Christopher Hoffman here is a writer who has written previously about Hillsdale College’s project in the state for Connecticut Magazine.