Two years ago I wrote an in-depth story on Hillsdale College’s efforts to open a center for religious studies in Connecticut. In the process, I dove deep into its history, beliefs, and philosophy.
Based on my reporting and subsequent events, here are five questions I suggest Tennesseans ask before Governor Bill Lee’s Proposal partnering with Hillsdale to open 50 charter schools is moving forward.
Will Hillsdale follow?
It’s been two years since Hillsdale got its permit for the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom in Somers, Connecticut, but it still isn’t fully open.
The institute has only hosted three events, a donor reception last year and two seminars on religion and the American government this last spring. No future events are listed on the Hillsdale website.
The center does not have a website and has not yet built a chapel inside the main building. He hired a general manager, but not the full-time chaplain envisioned in his application.
Will Hillsdale keep his word?
Because it is a nonprofit, the Blake Center in Hillsdale will eventually cost the City of Somers about $100,000 a year in property taxes.
Hillsdale has repeatedly promised to build the funds. School Chief of Staff Mike Harner told townspeople in March 2019, “We’re going to find a way to replace him. We intend to ensure that this gap is closed.
In a January 2020 public hearing, Hillsdale’s lead attorney, Ryan Walsh, said the Blake family, who had donated property for the center, had “pledged to cover the tax gap either through an annual contribution and/or an endowment”.
But neither Hillsdale nor the Blakes followed suit. The city has yet to receive a dime from either.
How religious is Hillsdale?
Hillsdale is consistently referred to as a Christian school. The college, however, is not affiliated with any denomination, requires no profession of faith, and has no theologians or clergymen on its board of trustees or among its principal administrators. Religion is not among his top 10 specialties.
When Hillsdale Chief of Staff Harner was asked at a 2019 meeting with Somers residents about what Hillsdale was, he said nothing about religion. “Individual freedom, personal responsibility, free enterprise and constitutional government” was his response.
The religion only emerged in Connecticut after it became clear that local zoning rules would not permit Hillsdale’s original proposal for a center focused on the Constitution and free enterprise. It was only then that Hillsdale declared itself a Christian school and changed its proposal to an institute of religious studies.
The school then invoked a federal law prohibiting discriminatory zoning for religious institutions and openly threatened to sue the city if its request was denied.
What does Hillsdale mean?
Hillsdale presents itself as a guardian of American traditions. But many Americans would not recognize his views on the Constitution and American history.
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Take Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most beloved presidents. In Hillsdale’s opinion, Teddy is one of the worst general managers in the country, only to be surpassed by Woodrow Wilson, whom the school demonizes.
What were the sins of Roosevelt and Wilson? According to Hillsdale, they founded the administrative state, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency that regulate American life and commerce. In Hillsdale’s view, this was an unconstitutional disaster that must be reversed.
How far would Hillsdale go – would only some federal agencies and programs be abolished or almost all of them? – is not clear.
These views dominate Hillsdale’s teachings of American government and history.
Do Hillsdale and its president tolerate extremism?
Extremist views have surfaced in recent years in Hillsdale publications and among his colleagues. Hillsdale’s newsletter, Imprimus, featured an article last September calling the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol a “hoax.”
Also last year, a Hillsdale researcher published a highly criticized text saying that “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense”. In 2016, Micheal Anton, lecturer and fellow at Hillsdale Graduate School in Washington, D.C.wrote under a pseudonym a controversial essay that was beginning, “2016 is the election of Flight 93: charge the cockpit or you die.” Both writers remain associated with Hillsdale.
These last two articles appeared in publications of the Claremont Institute, a Californian conservative think tank co-founded by Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale. He is vice-chairman of its board of directors.
Attorney John Eastman, a key player in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, is closely associated with Claremont. The Jan. 6 committee identified Eastman as the originator and main instigator of the scheme to get Vice President Mike Pence to reject valid electoral votes.
Christopher Hoffman is a longtime Connecticut journalist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Hartford Courant, New Haven Register, Connecticut Magazine, and Yale Medicine Magazine. He also served as a policy and communications advisor for the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office.