Before plans to open 50 charter schools in the state proceed, look at the Christian school’s broken promises in Connecticut and its extremist views and associates.
Two years ago, I wrote an in-depth story about Hillsdale College’s effort to open a religious study center in Connecticut. In the process, I did a deep dive into its history, beliefs and philosophy.
Based on my reporting and subsequent events, here are five questions I suggest Tennesseans ask before Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to partner with HIllsdale in opening 50 charter schools goes forward.
Will Hillsdale follow through?
It’s been two years since Hillsdale obtained its permit for the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom in Somers, Connecticut, but it’s still not fully open.
The institute has hosted only three events, a reception for donors last year and two seminars on religion and American government this past spring. No future events are listed on Hillsdale’s website.
The center has no website and has yet to build a planned chapel inside the main building. It has hired an executive director but not the full-time chaplain envisioned in its application.
Will Hillsdale keep his word?
Because it’s a nonprofit, Hillsdale’s Blake Center will eventually cost the town of Somers about $100,000 a year in property taxes.
Hillsdale repeatedly promised to make up the funds. School Chief of Staff Mike Harner told townspeople in March 2019, “We’re going to figure out how to replace it. It’s our intention to make sure that gap is addressed.”
At a January 2020 public hearing, Hillsdale lead attorney Ryan Walsh said the Blake family, which donated property for the center, had “committed to cover the tax gap either through an annual contribution and/or an endowment.”
But neither Hillsdale nor the Blakes followed through. The town has yet to receive a penny from either.
How religious is Hillsdale?
Hillsdale is routinely referred to as a Christian school. The college, however, is not affiliated with a denomination, requires no profession of faith and has no theologians or clergy on its board of directors or among its top administrators. Religion is not among its top 10 majors.
When Hillsdale Chief of Staff Harner was asked at a 2019 meeting with Somers residents what Hillsdale was all about, he said nothing about religion. “Individual liberty, personal responsibility, free enterprise and constitutional government” was his response.
Religion came up in Connecticut only after it became clear that local zoning rules would not allow Hillsdale’s initial 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 a religious studies institute.
The school then invoked a federal law outlawing discriminatory zoning for religious institutions and openly threatened to sue the town if its application was rejected.
What does Hillsdale stand for?
Hillsdale portrays itself as a keeper of American traditions. But many Americans would not recognize its take on the Constitution and American history.
Hear more Tennessee voices. Get the weekly opinion newsletter for insightful and thought-provoking columns.
Take Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most beloved presidents. In Hillsdale’s view, Teddy is among the nation’s worst chief executives, only to be outdone by Woodrow Wilson, whom the school all but demonizes.
What were Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s sins? They, according to Hillsdale, 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 catastrophe that must be undone.
How far Hillsdale would take this — would only some federal agencies and programs be abolished or virtually all of them? — is unclear.
These views dominate Hillsdale’s teachings about American government and history.
Do Hillsdale and its president tolerate extremism?
Extremist views have surfaced in recent years in Hillsdale publications and among its fellows. Hillsdale’s newsletter, Imprimus, featured an article last September calling the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol “a hoax.”
Also last year, a Hillsdale research scholar published a much-criticized essay saying that “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” In 2016, Micheal Anton, a lecturer and fellow at Hillsdale’s Washington, DC, graduate school, penned under a pseudonym a controversial essay that began, “2016 is the Flight 93 election. charge the cockpit or you die.” Both writers remain associated with Hillsdale.
The latter two pieces appeared in publications of the Claremont Institute, a conservative California think tank co-founded by Hillsdale President Larry Arnn. He is vice president of its board.
Attorney John Eastman, a key player in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, is closely associated with Claremont. The Jan. 6 Committee identified Eastman as the originator and primary instigator of the scheme to have Vice President Mike Pence reject valid electoral votes.
Eastman, who reportedly sought a presidential pardon after Jan. 6, remains a Claremont senior fellow and faculty member, according to his website.
Christopher Hoffman is a longtime Connecticut newspaper reporter and freelance journalist 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.