Dear Chicago Reader,
I just finished your surprisingly objective article on Hillsdale College ["School for the Politically Incorrect," May 3], and I wanted to add my personal insights as a graduate of Hillsdale College who no longer adheres to the Hillsdale Vision of America.
Dennis Rodkin's article says that there is an "almost libertarian culture that pervades the campus"; were that true, Hillsdale would be a very different and to me a better place than it has become. However, the college as it operates today has become a Christian Right institution which is more think tank than libertarian school. The few professors who stood behind the school's essentially libertarian founding principles are those whose classes I most enjoyed. Professors who pushed the agenda of the radical right, I chose to avoid. Professors who had any sort of liberal leanings were rarely around long enough to learn from.
Hillsdale proudly refuses to require courses such as BGSU's Ethnicity in America in its curriculum. In fact, it refuses to offer such courses, forcing students who don't recognize Dead White Men as their sole ideological forefathers to study elsewhere. Combine this refusal with a student body which comes overwhelmingly from an upper-class, white, Christian, midwestern background and you have a school which only reinforces its students' already narrow frames of reference and indoctrinates more than it truly educates.
As for the question of Hillsdale's true purpose in refusing federal funds: Hillsdale says it stopped accepting the money to avoid unwanted government control over the makeup of their student body, faculty, and curriculum. I was always told by the admissions staff that Hillsdale accepts the same percentage of minority applicants as non-minority applicants; it just so happens that there are a lot fewer minority applications coming their way. In my time at Hillsdale, there were usually 20 to 30 minority students and a total of two minority faculty members on campus. The vast majority of minority students were attending on athletic scholarships. One was Ethiopian nobility in exile. What minority student of any stripe who is proud of his/her heritage would apply to Hillsdale where he/she is guaranteed to learn solely about the "cultural traditions begun in Greece and Rome" and not about the myriad other influences which have shaped our unique country since its founding? I am surprised that open-minded people of any background still seek out Hillsdale, when even that Western civilization which is taught has been selectively culled. One reads Plato's Republic on orderly society but hears nothing about his Symposium in praise of homosexual love. One reads Saint Thomas Aquinas's Confessions but not Michelangelo's gay sonnets. One learns about the suffrage movement but is forced to sit through "women belong at home in the kitchen" speeches with alarming frequency, as witnessed by your own writer and as my graduating class suffered through at our commencement ceremonies.
Further, Hillsdale, which doesn't give its students or faculty vacation for Labor Day (too pro-union) or for Martin Luther King Day (not Greco-Roman enough), is hardly the financially struggling institution which it would like to be known as. Hillsdale's FreedomQuest Campaign was launched in 1990 with the daunting task of raising $150 million for Hillsdale's 150th anniversary in 1994. Since then, the school of 1,100 students has raised $180 million and counting, making Hillsdale the second best endowed college in the nation per student, behind only Harvard. Those kind of statistics do not let me believe even for a second that Hillsdale couldn't afford to underwrite more minority students' educations if they really wanted to.
The often openly racist and always openly homophobic students of Hillsdale don't see that, while Hillsdale's educational vision may have been able to provide students with an accurate picture of America 152 years ago, it is unable to deal with the concepts of substantive due process and equal protection which shape our country's policy in this latter half of the 20th century. The insular environment at Hillsdale doesn't even begin to prepare its students for the real world which they will face upon graduation--a world filled with African- and Asian-Americans, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and many others who through the courts and various legislative bodies are gaining more rights and are becoming more visible every day. Even people who grew up in families which by virtue of sheer wealth were able to avoid the unpleasant realities of multicultural America will find themselves unable to forever insulate themselves from that reality. When even Coors Brewing Company, a longtime supporter of Hillsdale College as well as Jessie Helms and other "Family Values" Republicans, extends domestic partnership benefits to gay and lesbian employees with same-gender partners, one must admit that homogeneous Hillsdale looks more like an anachronism than a novelty.
When Russell Orben says he knows "quite a few liberals" it probably means that he knows people who voted for Bush over Buchanan in the '92 primaries. It may even mean that he knows someone who subscribes to Christine Todd Whitman's prochoice Republicanism instead of Bob Dole's antilife message. Saying that one "knows quite a few liberals" smacks to me of the same brand of self-righteousness that "some of my best friends are gay (or black)" does. "Liberal" at Hillsdale is a word taken truly out of context, because "it's more like extreme far right versus far right versus right," which brands everyone left of Ronald Reagan as "liberal" with no contrarian voice to be heard.
Like Orben, I refuse to believe that white males are personally to blame for all the major social problems in the U.S. However, I refuse to accept Hillsdale as a "place of ideas." It is a place of one idea and one ideal, which one dare not defy. I recently sent Hillsdale a check--the only time I have done so since my graduation. Myself and another alumnus are contributing $150 for the purchase of brick on the new Alumni Walk of Fame. The brick order form asked that our names and the words "Gay Pride" be included on the brick. I expect my check will be returned uncashed any day now.
Kevin P. O'Brien
Hillsdale College, Class of 1991