Politics & Policy

Hillsdale’s Comeback

The college is stronger than ever.

When Larry Arnn arrived on the campus of Hillsdale College seven years ago as its new president, the school was reeling from scandal and its future was uncertain. Today, however, the college has bounced back. “We’re much stronger,” says Arnn.

This year’s incoming freshman class, in fact, is Hillsdale’s best ever.

The numbers tell the story. The freshmen who arrived on campus last month had an average SAT score of 1940 and an average ACT score of 28. The year before Arnn took over, these figures were 1820 and 26. (I’ve converted the older SAT scores using this table.)

The 2007 freshmen also had better high-school grade-point averages and were more likely to have graduated in the top ten percent of their classes.

This success story was by no means inevitable.

In 1999, Hillsdale was a proud bastion of conservatism. Under the leadership of the late George Roche, its president for nearly three decades, Hillsdale had transformed itself from an ordinary liberal-arts college in rural Michigan into a nationally celebrated institution that was best known for refusing to accept a penny of financial aid from the federal government. At a time when Washington was making massive encroachments on the independence of colleges and universities, Hillsdale showed that it was possible to put up a fight and still flourish.

Then came a controversy that was often described as tragic but which in fact was Gothic: the suicide of Lissa Roche, an employee of the college; accusations of a long-term affair with her father-in-law, the college president; and George Roche’s hasty disappearance from anything resembling public life. (At the time, I covered the story for National Review.)

Liberals reveled in the news, not merely because it was salacious but also because it was an embarrassment to conservatives. Wasn’t Hillsdale supposed to be a fortress of traditional values?

Yes, it was–and that’s why it survived its awful crisis.

“The college hit a bump in the road,” says Arnn. “I came here because I believe in what the college stands for, from its very first day in 1844.”

Arnn previously had headed the Claremont Institute, a California think tank that holds the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in reverence. So it made sense for him to find inspiration in Hillsdale’s own founding documents. “I decided that everybody at the college would study them, and that they would inform everything we do,” says Arnn.

Hillsdale’s articles of association say the college is “grateful to God for the inestimable blessings resulting from the prevalence of civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety in the land, and believing that the diffusion of sound learning is essential to the perpetuity of these blessings.” Hillsdale also was the first American college to forbid discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sex in its charter.

In one of this first moves, Arnn implemented an honor code. “It’s not just about lying and cheating and stealing–it’s about cultivating moral and intellectual virtues and accepting the mission of the college.”

The approach appears to have worked, according to figures provided by the college administration. The number of student applications soared from a recent low of 861 in 2000, when the school’s scandal was still fresh in many minds, to 1401 this year–an increase of 63 percent. During the same period, the rate of acceptance has dropped from 86 percent to 64 percent and the likelihood that an incoming freshman is from Michigan has fallen from 48 percent to 34 percent.

The school also has more professors today, and they’re probably happier: A requirement that they teach four courses per semester has been reduced to three. “This load is more in keeping with what’s expected on other campuses,” says Arnn. “Any college is a messy place with lots of opinions, but I don’t fight with the faculty very much.” In recent years, Arnn has convinced several prominent scholars to move to Hillsdale, including the political scientist Thomas Krannawitter, the historian Paul Rahe, and English professor Stephen W. Smith. National Review Online columnist Victor Davis Hanson is a part-time professor.

Fundraising is going very well, too: In its last fiscal year, Hillsdale raised nearly $66 million–roughly twice what it was bringing in a decade ago. The college is currently in the midst of a five-year capital campaign, with the goal of raising $400 million by the end of 2008. So far, it has brought in $380 million. “We might have the rest by Christmas,” says Arnn.

Does that mean he’ll end the campaign early? “Actually, we may extend it,” says Arnn. An ambitious plan to revamp and expand the campus keeps growing more elaborate, with the addition of a new science building and other improvements. Worried about meddlesome bureaucrats from Lansing, Hillsdale also recently quit accepting state aid. As a separate initiative, the college is starting to build a retirement community for people who want to spend their golden years living in the kind of intellectual environment that only Hillsdale can provide.

Hillsdale College always has been different. The 2008-09 edition of Choosing the Right College notes that “the largest group on campus is the College Republicans.” That might appall the left-wing relativists who dominate other schools.

So would the judgment that the Hillsdale experience may induce: Sometimes different really is better.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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