Hillsdale College Expands to Capitol Hill

The conservative-leaning institution plans to open a graduate school in government in D.C. this winter, with an emphasis on the study of the classics.

September 27, 2019
 
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Hillsdale building in D.C.

Hillsdale College, a conservative private institution located in Michigan, plans to introduce a Washington, D.C.-based graduate program this January. The Steve and Amy Van Andel Graduate School in Government will offer a master’s degree in government.

“Our students will study politics as a human activity oriented toward justice -- a series of choices that require prudence to achieve the best attainable results,” Matthew Spalding, the new school's dean, said in a news release announcing the launch.

The graduate program is aimed toward working professionals in law, media, government or the nonprofit sector. Courses will be offered on weekends and evenings to accommodate their schedules.

Hillsdale has long drawn attention, and criticism, for voluntarily opting out of federal aid programs, in part to avoid some federal reporting requirements. The college, which does not accept any state or federal funding, is well-known in some conservative circles, and Vice President Mike Pence gave the commencement speech at Hillsdale in 2018. (Note: This paragraph has been changed from a previous version to correct a reference to Hillsdale's reasons for opting out of federal aid.)

Students should be able to complete new degree's 36 credit hours within two and a half to three years. The program will focus on the American political tradition, with an emphasis on the study of primary source documents from the nation's founding. Students will be offered courses on the Constitution and American political philosophy, and promotional materials emphasize building students of character who are able to self-govern.

Core texts will include the writings of Plato, Locke, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Marx, as well as the Lincoln-Douglass debates and other presidential commentaries and addresses.

"This is the training of statesmen," said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which advocates for a traditional curriculum with an emphasis on the classics.

Poliakoff helped Hillsdale “refound” their classics program in 1987 and is a classics professor emeritus at the college. “[The] main goal was to have a comprehensive undergraduate program with strong emphasis on languages -- ancient Greek and Latin -- without which serious collegiate-level understanding of the past is not possible,” he said. “The most important thing about studying the past is the way that the past will help us confront the challenges of today. And that rather leads us into this graduate program, because it's quintessentially built around studying those works and those ideas and indeed debates.”

Hillsdale came under scrutiny last year when the Senate removed a tax exemption for the college, which is the alma mater of the brother of U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos. Steve Van Andel, the program's namesake, is the co-chair on the board of directors for Amway, which was co-founded by his father and Richard DeVos.

“Political science has in recent years introduced quite an emphasis on quantitative methods. There is nothing at all wrong with that,” Poliakoff said. “But when that begins to eclipse the dialogue of centuries of experience, then it is not educating the person in that kind of holistic way.”

‘Training for Everybody’

Throughout this fall a group of graduate students will be able to sample lectures and courses from the program. Hillsdale undergraduate students have had the opportunity to participate in the semester-long internship program in D.C. through the college.

"The principal aim [of the program] is to educate students in the language of American constitutionalism and to place its graduates in positions of public service in politics, in journalism, in the academy and elsewhere," said Emily Stack Davis, a spokesperson for Hillsdale. "This new graduate program in D.C. is an exciting new expansion of that mission. Over recent years, we've identified a need for higher education designed to help young professionals already dedicated to public service deepen their knowledge of the craft of government, and [the school] was born to meet that need."

Hillsdale appears to stay true to its conservative values with the new program, according to a video from the college that emphasized the importance of self-governance and traditional values in leaders.

Poliakoff, however, contested the conservative label.

“This is what everybody ought to be doing. The notion that somehow this should be labeled conservative or liberal seems to be a sign of how badly the academy has lapsed from its core mission of exploring ideas in an open and critical way,” Poliakoff said. “What a sad state we have come to if a course that is focusing on the founding documents would be looked upon as a particularly conservative kind of training. This is the training for everybody. I really would not like to see this viewed as a conservative graduate program. I’d like it to be seen as a bold experiment in a high-quality graduate program that bases itself on centuries of political philosophy.”

Hillsdale's Van Andel will compete with other conservative-leaning graduate programs in government that are offered outside Washington, such as the Christian-affiliated Regent University's Robertson School of Government. Additionally, the University of Chicago's John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought graduate program and Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy offer programs influenced by the classics.

“Today, the connection between liberty and learning is widely forgotten, and their mutual support has grown tenuous,” Larry Arnn, Hillsdale's president, said in a written statement. “Repairing the breach is a task both urgent and noble.”

In lieu of taxpayer-funded loans, students in the graduate program can receive what the college characterizes as “significant scholarships,” some even covering the full cost of tuition, which will be $1,340 per credit. According to Hillsdale's graduate school admissions page, students typically receive up to full-tuition scholarships funded through private donations.

The promotional video released in conjunction with the announcement of the new graduate school included an appearance from U.S. senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, who has advocated for better governance through better-educated individuals.

"What the Van Andel School of Government wants to do is help you see the North Star, because if you don't have that, why are you involved in politics?" Spalding, the dean, said in the video.

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