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Promoting Human Dignity Since 1844: Hillsdale College

For all the wrong reasons (and none actually correct), Hillsdale College served as an important part of the debates [1]in the Senate this weekend regarding tax reform.  Taking it upon himself to become the crusader for everything “progressive,” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon proudly proclaimed [2]on Twitter and Facebook: Hillsdale College wants “to have permission to discriminate in selecting students.”  Of course, Senator Merkley did not mean that the college discriminated in its selection process, as any real university would, to seek and recruit the best and the brightest, but, rather, that  the college discriminates to make sure the college stays racially white. Or, as he not so delicately put it, Hillsdale College “specializes in discrimination.”

I have no ability to judge whether the Senator spoke out of ignorance of  maliciousness, but I can state this definitively: He knows absolutely nothing about Hillsdale College, and, frankly, if he possesses even an ounce of decency, he will formally apologize for his claims.

A group of abolitionist Free-will Baptists founded Hillsdale College in 1844, though they stipulated that the college could not be denominational. Instead, true to their abolitionist beliefs, the founders of the college forbade any discrimination based on the accidents of birth. In other words, Hillsdale—from day one of its existence, as defined by its charter—allowed a person of either sex and of any racial, ethnic, or religious background to study there. The college became, understandably, a hotbed for abolitionist sentiment, and it was the rare prominent abolitionist of the ante-bellum period who did not grace Hillsdale with a visit and a speech. Perhaps, most prominently, Frederick Douglass spoke here. True to our heritage, President Larry Arnn dedicated a statue to the great anti-slavery orator just this past spring. That statue, along with a statue of a Civil War soldier and Abraham Lincoln greet the visitor to Hillsdale’s beautiful campus in southern Michigan.

As noted above, though, Hillsdale was not just color-blind from day one, it was also the first college or university in the United States to allow women the right to earn a liberal arts degree. Others allowed women to study for home economics, but, at Hillsdale, they were treated just as well as men, studying the Great Ideas, the Great Minds, and the Great Books of western civilization.


When Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the Confederate rebellion in the spring of 1861, almost every single male at the college answered that call, making it unique among all northern colleges. Indeed, outside of the military academies, not a single institution of higher learning offered anywhere near the level of participation that Hillsdale offered. Hillsdale men (and, of course, women, though in non-combat positions) served the Union stunningly, especially in the 2nd, 4th, and 24th Michigan regiments. The 24th, the fifth of five regiments to make up the justly famous Iron Brigade, sacrificed themselves in one of the most horrific moments of the Civil War, the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg. Positioning themselves at a bottle neck on the eastern side of the little Lutheran Pennsylvania town, the 24th Michigan, outnumbered nearly 10 to 1, fought so fiercely that the Confederate invaders held back, despite having the superiority in numbers.  When Lee found out about the timidity of his own troops, he was furious. Had his troops broken the 24th Michigan, they could have readily taken the high ground of Little Roundtop and surrounding areas. The Hillsdale men who gave their lives that day in what must have seemed a hopeless cause very well changed the course of American and western civilization. Today, the fourth floor of Delp Hall, which houses the history department, is dedicated to their sacrifice, a seminar room displaying paintings of that hot, humid afternoon in Pennsylvania as one Hillsdale man after another succumbed to enemy fire.

During the 1950s, at the height of the struggle for black civil rights, Hillsdale’s football team, led by the intrepid Muddy Waters, refused to play in the Tangerine Bowl because black players were not allowed on the field. Hillsdale’s team would’ve have gone into the 1955 Bowl game with a 9-0 record. 

Your author—yours truly—has had the privilege of teaching at this college for over eighteen years.  To this very day, I am more than proud to note, Hillsdale remains 100% blind when it comes to the color, race, ethnicity, and religion of its students. Not only do we not ask a student to identify any race or ethnicity on his or her application form to the college, but we keep absolutely no data about such things. We believe in character, not skin color. We love intelligence, not appearance. We love the individual, not the group.

Though I can only speak for myself and not for the college (for I have no such authority to do so) as a whole, I can state that far from “specializing in discrimination,” we might be the single best institution in western civilization that adamantly refuses at every level to “specialize in discrimination.”

Though I do not have the privilege of knowing or even understanding Senator Merkley, I can state with certainty that while he makes a show of calling for “equality,” he really means a drab uniformity and collectivized tapioca. As Dr. Arnn, the single best college president in the world, has reminded us many times, we were anti-discrimination long before the Federal Government was. In fact, he notes, the Federal Government finally adopted OUR position on the issue of race and ethnicity, not the other way around. Hillsdale had to remind the United States over and over again of the Founding intent as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Rather than speaking about that of which he knows nothing, perhaps Senator Merkley would consent to visit our campus. I would happily show him our statues that so beautifully reveal our devotion to liberal education as well as to the dignity and beauty of each human person, each a unique expression of a majestic Creator. I would happily introduce him to my extraordinary colleagues and to my ever-curious students. I would also take him to Oak Grove Cemetery, a sacred site on the northern most part of town that inters over 300 Civil War veterans as well as the first historian of Hillsdale College, Ransom Dunn. In 1854, he became so disgusted with Washington politics and especially the Democratic Party under Stephen Douglas, that he helped form an independent movement that sought to prevent the extension of slavery in the American West. After much deliberation under a grove of oak trees in Jackson, Michigan, they finally decided on the name, the Republican Party.

As a historian at one of the finest institutions of higher learning in existence, I only ask that the Senate neither helps nor hinders us.  Hillsdale College does not take one single penny from the federal government, and our students take not one single penny in loans. Just please leave us alone, and we’ll be fine. Indeed, leave us alone, and we’ll continue to show the world how best to educate and how best to promote the dignity of every single human person regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. 

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Promoting Human Dignity Since 1844: Hillsdale College"

#1 Comment By Chuck Miller On December 4, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

Thank you, well said.

#2 Comment By Scott On December 4, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

I notice you actually didn’t address the issue raised during the tax bill fiasco: that Hillsdale and other colleges sought special tax privileges exempting themselves from the Republican culture war on higher education on the rather flimsy reason that they choose not to take federal funds.

It has been many years since I’ve been to Hillsdale (my father graduated in 1950) but it seems to have been ideologically captured by a radical right wing that would have been unrecognized in past years.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 4, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

Oregon’s Democrats are in the very forefront of all things SJW.

#4 Comment By TR On December 4, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

All this would be fine, but a few months ago I received an unsolicited mailer from Hillsdale promoting some organization in favor of the American Constitution.

It was an intellectual disgrace, insisting that the document was flawless, instantly understandable. To anyone seriously religious, its insistence on the sanctity of the document must have reeked of blasphemy. Surely only the Bible can be that sacred.

I lost all respect for Hillsdale at that moment.

#5 Comment By Cash On December 4, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

At Hillsdale, kids learn that what the Founders did in 1787 in Philadelphia was anticipate the policy preferences of today’s Republican party. The college is a joke. A modern blab school. Dopey kids who graduate as dumb as when they matriculated, only now their ignorance comes with footnotes. Hillsdale may teach the Great Books but it will never be another Chicago, where students brawl with each other and the faculty about what they’re learning. A Wahhabi-run madrassah is more intellectually engaging than Hillsdale.

#6 Comment By George Booth On December 4, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

“I have no ability to judge whether the Senator spoke out of ignorance of maliciousness, but I can state this definitively: He knows absolutely nothing about Hillsdale College, and, frankly, if he possesses even an ounce of decency, he will formally apologize for his claims.”

Probably both. He doesn’t and he won’t. Like all ideologues, he’s happy to create and foster a lie if it serves his purposes.

#7 Comment By Redbrick On December 4, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

“the Confederate rebellion”

Oh please…

Unionist dripple

#8 Comment By Anonymous On December 4, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

I am forever thankful for the education that Hillsdale Academy–started by the College–gave me. It did allow me to think critically. However, in my experience with the Academy and the College, I have witnessed discrimination firsthand. It may not be racially, but I have seen women being treated like second-class citizens. I know women who have been told that their only useful job is to be a housewife by fellow students and professors. I was also taught to believe that everyone who did not attend either the Academy or the College is stupid. Daily I would listen to students or professors ridicule those who did not attend. Lastly, what upset me the most was when the College sent an email to every student, teacher, and alumni asking to pray about the “evil” of gay marriage. To me, this was discrimination at its highest form. While Hillsdale may not discriminate during admissions, they surely discriminate once students have entered.

#9 Comment By Peter On December 4, 2017 @ 9:17 pm

Why do you think that, Cash? I have heard only good things about Hillsdale from the people who have attended and outsiders who have visited.

#10 Comment By GregR On December 4, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

“Your author—yours truly—has had the privilege of teaching at this college for over eighteen years. To this very day, I am more than proud to note, Hillsdale remains 100% blind when it comes to the color, race, ethnicity, and religion of its students. Not only do we not ask a student to identify any race or ethnicity on his or her application form to the college, but we keep absolutely no data about such things. We believe in character, not skin color. We love intelligence, not appearance. We love the individual, not the group.”

This is just not true. Every year Hillsdale reports to the NCAA about the racial makeup of its student-athletes in order to participate in any NCAA sports. So at best yo could claim that you only track race when it matters, i.e. sports.

As for the rest, I have no idea. Hillsdale may be a bastion of ethnic diversity for all I know, but it certainly does track the racal makeup of its teams.

#11 Comment By Sam Torode On December 4, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

Thanks for the wonderful summation of Hillsdale’s history, Dr. Birzer. As an alumni, though, I’m embarrassed that as Hillsdale has become more associated with Republican politics (1970s onward), fewer non-white students have applied & enrolled. Those very few that are in the student body can feel alone. Looking at past yearbooks, I know there were far more African American students at Hillsdale in decades past than there were in the 90s, when I was there. From campus photos in college publications, I surmise there are even fewer today. Will Hillsdale administrators & professors ask: why aren’t we attracting more minority students? A color-blind admissions policy, I think, isn’t good enough in itself.

#12 Comment By KB On December 4, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

Obviously Scott, TR and Cash are ignorant in their statements and my guess would be they are paid trollers of the progressive movement. I graduated from Hillsdale in 1993….son of a UAW family and teacher union that had its place at one point in time but as a misguided and short term way of accumulating wealth and middle class status thru guaranteed pensions, healthcare…and early retirement which has destroyed many municipalities and companies. I would invite them to receive IMPRIMIS, visit the College…not once but many times and keep an open mind for an institution that celebrates diversity naturally that allowed minorities from sex reach and religion back in the 1800’s before it was ever PC in today’s world. I pray for them as well as Hillsdale College!

#13 Comment By BCZ On December 5, 2017 @ 5:49 am

I love everything about this letter.

#14 Comment By Sam Torode On December 5, 2017 @ 8:33 am

PS– The Republican party has become markedly more a conglomeration of racists or near-racists since 2008. (Charlottesville was only the point of no return.) Since President Arnn made multiple statements supporting Trump during last year’s election, and since Hillsdale continues to market itself as the educational wing of the Republican party, Hillsdale will not attract minority students. Again–colorblind admissions is not enough.

PPS– I meant “as an alumnus” above, but I can’t correct typos on this darn site.

#15 Comment By TR On December 5, 2017 @ 8:51 am

KB: I don’t need your prayers. I was perfectly willing to concede that Hillsdale was a first-rate, conservative liberal arts institution, until I got that stupid mailer. And just googling Hillsdale/Constitution makes Hillsdale sound like a propaganda mill.

#16 Comment By Tyro On December 5, 2017 @ 10:22 am

Hillsdale has employed scholars I respect and learned from through their books and other scholarship. Of course, Hillsdale fired them when they indicated they wanted to be scholars who were conservative rather than “conservative scholars.”

Whatever the origins of its founding, it was bought and paid for by movement conservatives many years ago and seeks out tax carve outs from sympathetic movement conservatives in Congress

#17 Comment By Richard M On December 5, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

1. Senator Merkley may have reason to be miffed at a proposed (by Republicans) tax exemption which seems on its terms likely to benefit only one college – Hillsdale – which also happens of late to be unusually interwoven into Republican politics. If that’s the beef, he should have confined himself to that beef, as Sen. Claire McCaskill did.

Instead, he accuses it of practicing racial discrimination. And Bradley Birzer is right to take strong exception to that, and ask for a retraction. There is no evidence of such discrimination in hiring (if there were they would have been eviscerated by federal investigators in 2009-2016 by now). If its student body tends to lean toward the white conservative milieu, it’s simply out of self-selection, given the present conservative political tilt of the school. And that is not the same thing as discrimination, direct or indirect, in admissions. In this respect, Hillsdale is shaped by self-selection as much as Evergreen is by its very lefty politics.

2. I think the idea of exempting from a tax on endowments tertiary institutions which decline to lean on federal assistance in student loans is quite reasonable; or at least, one should be able to concede that the principle is a reasonable one (whether one actually favors it as active federal policy at this time and place): if you depend heavily on the federal government subsidizing your students, the federal government has a reasonable tax claim on your assets. But if GOP senators meant to push such a proposal, there ought not have been any floor on the endowment size.

#18 Comment By Peter On December 5, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

Sam, I believe the issue you raise about less minority students has to do with two factors. One is that the progressives constantly lie about their own history and the history of conservatives and slander us as racist bigots 24/7, and the other is that the conservative movement as a whole has not done a good job of marketing it’s message. Also, you say you’re disappointed that the college has become heavily associated with Republican politics. Compared to what? The 99% of universities in this country that lean almost entirely left? The ones that teach nothing but leftist, collectivist, social justice warrior horse manure? In a sea of schools where students only hear leftist propaganda and there are barely any conservatives to give them another point of view, I have no problem with having one completely conservative school to balance things out.

#19 Comment By Sam Torode On December 5, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

Thanks, Peter. In my view, the problem isn’t that “the conservative movement as a whole has not done a good job of marketing it’s message” — it’s that since 2008, the dominant party message has morphed from compassionate conservatism (which tried to appeal to minorities and immigrants) to anti-immigrant, anti-minority white nationalism. Ask Jeff Flake what happens when you try to run as a compassionate (or even honest) conservative today.

Hillsdale’s president could have joined those like Mitt Romney in rejecting Trumpism, and appealing to the older conservative principles. Instead, President Arnn supported Trump during the primaries and signed an “Intellectuals for Trump” ad that used his Hillsdale identification to endorse Trump. To me, that destroyed Hillsdale’s reputation as a serious conservative institution.

For me, personally, the problems go deeper than Trump. It’s not just a matter of returning to Russell Kirk’s conservatism, because now when I look at “The Conservative Mind” (as I did recently), I’m struck by how Kirk embraces slavery-defenders like Calhoun as conservatives, while he rejects the abolitionists and Lincoln.

While I’m through with conservatism, myself, I would still rather see Hillsdale standing up for conservatism (like Mitt Romney) rather than just saying whatever fires up Republican voters/donors.

#20 Comment By Peter On December 5, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

Sam, who in the Republican party today supports white nationalism? While I don’t agree with President Arnn’s endorsement of Donald Trump, to imply that he and anyone else that supports Trump is supporting white nationalism is just disingenuous. Yes, Trump does have supporters from the alt-right. There’s no denying that, but that is not the majority of his base. Also, I wouldn’t hold up Mitt Romney, the inventor of Obamacare, as the standard bearer for modern conservatism.

Although Larry Arnn is president of Hillsdale, I don’t think his endorsement of Trump says anything about the good work done at the university. Not everyone there supported Trump in the primaries and Hillsdale still does an amazing job teaching the classical liberal arts core curriculum, which is sorely lacking in most universities these days. Just peruse through their free online courses to see that.

#21 Comment By Peter On December 5, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

P.S. The welfare state created by the Democrats has done far more harm to minorities than anything the GOP has ever done.

#22 Comment By Sean On December 6, 2017 @ 5:32 pm

Mr. Brizer presents his story about Hillsdale and paints this rosy picture, and that’s his right. But Hillsdale has it’s very dark side and a person that was dear to me paid one hell of a price for it. There’s a book by Roger Rapoport called, “Hillsdale, Greek Tragedy in America’s Heartland” and it exposed a very ugly side to Hellsdale, er I mean Hillsdale. Don’t expect me to apologize for nothing!

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 7, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

A couple of comments. I think that Hillsdale has every right to defend itself against false accusations..

The problem for Gov Romney was not Mr Trump. It was the positions of Gov. Romney. I remain a supporter of Pres trump — that hardly means an embrace of every position or utterance.

“Lastly, what upset me the most was when the College sent an email to every student, teacher, and alumni asking to pray about the “evil” of gay marriage. To me, this was discrimination at its highest form.”

I am a little concerned that someone who attended a Baptist institution who leans on scripture, would be surprised by what is a common understanding of same sex relational behavior. It is a discrimination that people who believe in scripture — recognize as unacceptable behavior.

That seems news to you is troubling.

#24 Comment By Dale McNamee On December 7, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

Given the silliness, tantrums, whining, nauseatingly “perpetually offended minorities”, fascistic coercive behavior by “students”, and worthless degrees granted by many “prestigious” colleges…

Stop the hypocritical, putrescent, virtueless “virtue signaling” over Hillsdale College over a joking remark about “dark ones” while the same “celebrate and force their ‘dark color’ on the rest of us…

Meanwhile, white and white people are insanely hated by these “sainted ones”… There was a recent American Conservative article on such a student paper article about “white DNA”… Take time to read it and think of why it was written and published… “Dark ones”… Really ?