By Dennis Rodkin
Here’s a short quiz:
In the fall of 1992, Russell Orben was just another smart, clean-cut white kid from a small town near Toledo doing his freshman year at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.
Russell Orben learned a lot his freshman year at BGSU. He enrolled in a required course called “Ethnicity in America,” received a D-minus on an English paper for using the word “mankind” instead of “humanity,” and witnessed a brawl in his dorm between white and black students that was sparked by a drunk white kid referring to a drunk black kid and his friends as “you people.”
By the time he went home for the summer, Russell had changed. If you had been Russell, would you have finished up your freshman year as:
(A) An acutely self-aware vegetarian who embraces the diversity of this multicultural nation even though your roots in North America’s dominant race embarrass you only a little bit less than your genetic status as a planet-ravaging male; or
(B) A fire-breathing, white-and-proud right-wing dork, fiercely quoting the great Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan back at the aging hippies who taught your courses on topics like “The Decline and Fall of Everything White Guys Ever Did”; or
(C) A calm middle-of-the-roader leaning right who was a mite concerned about where you were going to learn stuff like American history and Western literature in the politically charged atmosphere of BGSU?
If you picked (A) you probably don’t want to know that the single lesson Orben believes you were supposed to pick up from “Ethnicity in America” is that “as a white male I was personally to blame for all the major social problems in the U.S.”
If you picked (B) the Diversity Committee would like a word with you.
If you picked (C) you’ll be glad to know that this word problem ends happily for Russell. He graduates this spring from tiny Hillsdale College, a 152-year-old Michigan school that is a haven for students and professors who cling to a once standard core curriculum that focuses on Western civilization, American history, and the Judeo-Christian heritage.
Hillsdale College, 200 miles east of Chicago, is the exact antithesis of the stereotypic politically correct campus. There are no Afrocentric courses; no affirmative- action policies; no courses in feminist literature; no organization of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students; no seminars on the lasting impact of 1960s rock music on American culture. There’s not even a coed dorm.
“And there’s no attack on dead European males–we love all those guys,” says Joseph McNamara, the college’s public relations chief.
Hillsdale College may be the most politically incorrect campus in America. It’s a place where a visiting speaker gets enthusiastic applause for condemning the idea of gay marriage, where a professor answered my question about “diversity” on the faculty by telling me, “We have a lot of Catholics and Episcopalians, but there is also a large group of Presbyterians,” and where the name Dan Quayle comes up often–but never as a punch line.
The campus, sitting on a hill above the blink-and-you-miss-it county seat of Hillsdale County, is a collection of low-slung institutional buildings and romantic old houses nestled under tall trees. There’s not much to set it apart from a zillion other small college campuses, except that everywhere you look there’s a sculpture of an eagle–a common icon among conservatives–even though the school mascot is a horse.
The one piece of striking architecture on campus is Central Hall, a 121-year-old building that houses administrative offices. A commanding four-story structure topped by two dark, rounded gables with a three-story white clock tower between them, Central Hall starts to look like the school’s biggest eagle sculpture once you’ve noticed all the smaller birds poised around campus.
But it’s not the eagles or anything else physical that sets Hillsdale apart–it’s a don’t-tread-on-me attitude, an almost libertarian culture that pervades the campus. The first page of the college catalog sums it up this way: “We see America’s greatness to be built upon the philosophy of freedom and the integrity of freely choosing and moral individuals.” The page is packed so deftly with conservative buzzwords that it might as well be a rough draft for souvenir programs to be sold at next summer’s Republican convention.
How does Hillsdale’s vision translate into everyday teaching and learning? “Everything goes back to the importance of the three institutions this country was founded on: family, church, and local community,” says Orben, a political economy major who’s applying to business and law schools. “When you study recent American history you can see that we have lost touch with those things.”
Running against the wind is a fundamental tradition at Hillsdale; from the day it opened in 1844 as Michigan Central College, Hillsdale was educating women, a radical act at that time. In 1850 Hillsdale became the nation’s first college with a charter that prohibited discrimination because of race, sex, or religion. During World War I, when a high-ranking army official learned that Hillsdale’s ROTC unit had a black man in it, he pointed out that such units were supposed to be segregated; Hillsdale’s president refused to bring the school in line, and the ROTC unit stayed integrated.
In the 1970s, when the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare requested that the nation’s colleges go on record assuring their compliance with federal civil rights laws or else lose federal funding, Hillsdale was the only school to register an official protest that the rule amounted to asking colleges to sign a “loyalty oath.” Ultimately, Hillsdale wound up signing its own pledge, one that says it won’t accept federal funds of any kind, either directly or indirectly through federal education grants to its students.
Because Hillsdale lives without federal funds, it doesn’t have to live by such inconvenient federal rules as affirmative action. Hillsdale’s president for the past 25 years, George Roche, says the college has since the beginning practiced “true nondiscrimination” by paying no attention to the race of any applicant, either for a job or for admission as a student. No college forms have little boxes where the applicant marks his or her race. “There’s nothing in our records based on race,” Roche says. “To do it any other way is essentially racist.”
Press him on how many of the 1,100 students and 90 faculty members are not white and Roche will profess to have no idea. In my four days on campus I spotted four black students, six Asian students, and no faculty members who weren’t white. There’s one Asian name in the faculty list–a teacher of Japanese. A white professor said, “We had one black gentleman for a while, but I believe he left a few years ago.”
Many schools are still grappling with the question of how to make their course offerings encompass world cultures, histories, and literatures instead of just the things Western white men have written, thought about, and killed. But Hillsdale is going in the opposite direction, adding to its curriculum a required course on “Western heritage”–the political and cultural traditions begun in Greece and Rome and carried down to the founding of this country. As Roche said, “Not only would a class like that not be a requirement on most campuses in America, but many faculties wouldn’t even allow such a course in the curriculum these days.” As evidence, he pointed to the notorious case of Yale University returning a multimillion-dollar gift rather than launch a course dedicated to Western culture.
No wonder tiny Hillsdale, isolated in rural southern Michigan, is a darling of the conservative movement. The college catalog is dotted with tributes from the likes of Ronald Reagan; his attorney general, Edwin Meese; and William F. Buckley. George Bush, Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, and Margaret Thatcher have all spoken on campus. So has Steve Forbes, who signed the foreword for the latest book by Roche.
“I give Hillsdale credit for keeping the faith,” says Philip Crane, the Republican congressman from Illinois’ Eighth District, in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Crane graduated from Hillsdale in 1952 and has been on the board of trustees since 1965. “So many of our fundamental values have been skewered in the past 25 to 30 years, but Hillsdale has adhered faithfully to the values upon which this country was founded. Those values include, first of all, a recognition that the most important thing in life is individual liberty. Second, that the best way of securing that is through the advancement of free enterprise. Third, that government has a very limited role, which is simply protecting us against trespass instead of intruding into virtually every aspect of our lives. And fourth, that religious and moral values are the best way to preserve a civil and organized society.”
Hillsdale doesn’t simply preserve those values in the airtight jar that is a semirural midwestern town. It carries them nationwide via a unique monthly publication called Imprimis. Not the usual alumni magazine filled with updates on alumni weddings, deaths, and summer houses, Imprimis is a bulletin carrying the latest thinking of the conservative movement to 620,000 readers.
Usually Imprimis carries the text of one or two recent speeches on campus or at a Hillsdale road show elsewhere in the country. Recent issues have pressed such conservative hot buttons as “The Real Root Cause of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of the Family,” “The New Welfare Debate: How to Practice Effective Compassion,” “Deinventing Government,” and “The Sixties Are Dead: Long Live the Nineties.”
Mailed free to major newspaper and magazine editors, to conservative activists, and to thousands of civilians like me who just like to read, Imprimis raises the profile of both the college and the speakers reprinted in it. A trip to small-town southern Michigan to talk to a few hundred college students might not be worth the effort. But the chance that your speech to the kids will later show up on the desks of conservative publishers and opinion makers makes the hour-long limo ride to Hillsdale from the nearest airport over two-lane highways appealing for somebody like Gramm or Kemp.
Not just a smart publication for an ambitious conservative to appear in, Imprimis is also Hillsdale’s most valued marketing tool. It catches the eyes of potential faculty members and students who are sympathetic to the cause, and it’s a powerful money magnet. Imprimis costs about $3 per reader to produce, or roughly $1.8 million a year. College officials estimate it brings $15 million in contributions every year. Eight to ten percent of the people who receive Imprimis for more than three years wind up donating to the school. Hillsdale has about five times as many contributors as it has living alumni–which indicates that the school gets support from far beyond its natural loyalty base.
Imprimis and its live counterparts–college-sponsored conferences on campus and in big cities, including Chicago this May–make Hillsdale College into a sort of two-headed beast.
One head is the quiet, leafy, plain-wrap college that has changed its educational program little since the 1950s, except for keeping up to date on technology. It’s run by, and typified by, Roche, the genteel and courtly president who has written a dozen books on values, education, and freedom. He describes Hillsdale College as “geared to traditional ideas of Western civilization, liberal arts, and the unique American experience that comes with it. We believe a quality education should reflect the things that have characterized the best of the Western world–the Greeks, the Romans, the Magna Carta, our founding fathers.”
Hillsdale’s other head, its presence as a conservative think tank, is also directed by Roche, but it’s managed by his handpicked second, Ronald Trowbridge, a former top official with the Reagan-era U.S. Information Agency and staff director of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.
Bigger, quicker, and louder than Roche, Trowbridge is the quintessence of today’s outraged, apocalyptic conservative activist. “The culture now is being driven by government, the news media, the entertainment industry, and academia,” he told me. “We are at odds philosophically with all of those entities. It is a war of ideas. I am not certain it is winnable. I hope we can be optimistic, but just as the Roman Empire fell from within, it is entirely conceivable that someday America will not be as we now know it.”
Whether it’s Roche’s reserved traditionalism or Trowbridge’s in-your-face battle fever, conservatism trickles down to Hillsdale’s students. Most I spoke to say they arrived as freshmen with conservative inklings and watched those feelings gain heft in their years at Hillsdale. “There’s not a lot of left versus right,” said senior Wes Kelley, a political economics and Christian studies major I asked to lay out the political spectrum of the student body. “It’s more like extreme far right versus far right versus right.”
Hold it right there. You’re thinking it’s 200 acres of Alex P. Keatons, aren’t you? Marching in obedient lockstep with the Republican Party’s white wing, they wear the official uniform of short hair on the men, big hair on the women–or, more to the point, girls–and narrow minds for everybody, right?
Not true. With an average SAT score of 1160, ACT of 26, and high school GPA of 3.51, Hillsdale students are smart enough to think for themselves, and most show signs that that’s what they do.
A few weeks after the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced, the college newspaper ran a pretty adept story headlined “The trial of the Century? Have we forgotten Roe v. Wade, [and the] Scopes Trial?” The article laid out precedents that those two cases and Brown v. Board of Education established, then pointed out that for all its celebrity the Simpson trial won’t set any legal precedents. The same edition had editor in chief Greg Corombos groaning about the rude treatment President Clinton got from Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner and a TV reporter when Clinton called Turner to congratulate him on the Braves’ World Series win. “I am certainly not a fan of the President,” Corombos wrote, “and I disagree with just about everything he has ever done, said or thought, but he does deserve respect.” (True to conservative form, the article was illustrated with an enormous photo of Ronald Reagan over a caption that suggested–a little naively if you ask me–that people were much more respectful during his presidency.)
In November, during an on-campus conference on the future of the family, I detected a distinctly independent streak among the women students. Several of the imported speakers on the topic hinted, implied, or stated flat out that women should expect to stay home with their children. But after finishing, each fielded at least one question from women students chiding the speaker for being unrealistic.
In one case, the speaker was Kenneth Ogden, a vice president of the Christian and very conservative California group Focus on the Family. Ogden, who is in his 60s, made a pitch for the vitality of the traditional mom-and-dad family, as opposed to the more fluid form families take under the influence of “homosexuals, feminists,” and other demons. After he finished, he got a swift one-two punch from women students sitting in different parts of the auditorium. The first asked what a woman can do if she wants to be a dedicated mother but also feels called into a profession. Ogden’s answer boiled down to advising her to wait until her kids are grown before starting a career. The woman returned to her seat looking unsatisfied.
Next question: “I’m concerned about your stereotyping of feminism as antifamily. Feminism is the pursuit of equality, which is in line with everything Jesus said. Do you really think feminism is antifamily?” This time Ogden’s answer boiled down to “uh, um, um . . . ”
“This college is a place of ideas,” Orben, the transfer from BGSU, said one morning in the office of Michigan’s oldest college newspaper, the Hillsdale Collegian, where he’s the sports editor. “Anyone who has ideas is welcome. I know quite a few liberals on campus. They’re not very vocal, but they have an opinion that comes to the table with all the others.”
At lunch in the cafeteria with four students–all of them white and pretty darned conservative, by their own reckoning–I rattled off a list of political views and lifestyles that are present on most college campuses and asked if people like that would be welcome at Hillsdale. On Marxist, socialist, libertarian anarchist, feminist, and vegetarian, I got energetic approval and assurances that several people on campus had adopted those ideas. “If they can defend their beliefs, no problem,” Daniels said.
Then I asked about gay students. Blank stares. “I’m sure they’re here,” Kelley said. “One I knew transferred. I assume he didn’t feel comfortable.”
Robert Blackstock, the head of admissions, had already told me that “the pressure to accept the gay community that is present on many college and university campuses would be a matter of concern to most of our constituents–both students and their parents. It is part of the attack on traditional values and on religion itself.”
One morning in Professor John Willson’s “American Heritage” course, Willson spent about 30 minutes laying out a defense of the south’s position in the Civil War. It was all about local patriotism, Willson explained. “The Confederates were trying to protect their ways against someone trying to change them. They were protecting local liberty,” he said. “It’s the same decision as the colonists made when they left Great Britain in 1776.” (Not to mention the decision Hillsdale made when it seceded from the federal dole, and the reason Newt Gingrich wants to hand so much money and authority back to the states.)
“The focus of an agrarian society is local,” Willson said. “The south was defending its ability to control its own destiny.” I was getting uncomfortable; here’s a teacher telling 20 conservative white kids that the south was right? This couldn’t be headed anywhere good. As I looked around the room I could see I wasn’t alone. Some of the students were frowning, others had put their pens down and crossed their arms in a wait-and-see pose. One was muttering under her breath. Wheels were clearly turning inside many, but certainly not all, of those heads.
Finally, with just four minutes left in the period, Willson pulled out the kicker. When he said “All of this talk of local patriotism obscures the absolute wrong of slavery,” I swear I heard a collective sigh of relief.
Willson had been using a classic bait-and-switch teaching method, but that kind of thing can be risky. He had to take his students all the way into the heart of the prosouth philosophy before he could effectively blow a hole in it. But in politically charged times like these, it’s not always smart to pretend racism just to prove a point.
The squirming that Willson’s lecture provoked in me is a lot like the Rorschach test that springs from Hillsdale’s stance on refusing federal funds. Does the school hide plain racism behind principled phrases like “independence” and “local control,” or is it a place where race is truly irrelevant?
I never managed to catch up with any of the few black or Asian students I saw on campus, so I don’t know how they feel about the place, but several Hillsdale administrators said the reason for minorities’ scarceness is money.
“We are being outbid,” Roche says. “Big-name schools are playing with a lot of federal money they can use to attract good black students, so many times a student who wants to come to Hillsdale finds that the sacrifice is too great.” Aggressive fund-raising for student aid has gotten Hillsdale to the point where it can offer 60 to 70 percent of the aid that other schools offer, he says. “That leaves the student to make up a 30 to 40 percent difference. How many families can afford that kind of sacrifice?” (The total cost to attend Hillsdale this year, including room and board, was $16,910.)
Everybody insists that there’s no secret tally sheet on the race of students, present or past. It’s hard to believe that a school that boasts that it educated blacks early on, that it sent more soldiers to fight for the Union than any other northern college, and whose graduates include the founder and namesake of Fisk University–one of the top black colleges in America–has never recorded the number of its black students, even at the beginning.
But that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.
The closest I could get to an estimate of nonwhite enrollment came from Blackstock, the dean of admissions. He said, “Ten years ago when I walked around campus, I saw a fair number of minority faces. Now I see fewer.” Like Roche, he blames the slide on money.
“What has happened over the last 20 years with affirmative action policies is that students who once would have come to us are now being given amazing financial packages at other institutions. We offer a minority student the same financial package as we offer anyone, but then the student goes down the road, usually to a major university, and gets full tuition, room, board, and a stipend. We can’t compete with that, and we won’t.
“Hillsdale College has always taken the position that it is inconsistent with the traditional understanding of justice to make decisions based on race. I’m confident that after the national affirmative action discussion plays itself out, we will once again find ourselves attractive to minority students.”
Which leads us to the last question on our quiz: Now that Bob Dole has endorsed the movement in California to ban all forms of racial preference in hiring and college admissions, will it soon turn out that by deciding to fall behind the times many years ago Hillsdale College has been ahead of its time all along?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Cynthia Howe.