What was the first American college to prohibit racial discrimination in its charter? What about gender-based discrimination? Many people might guess one of the schools known for a progressive worldview today, such as UC-Berkeley or one of the Ivy Leagues. The first such school, however, was Hillsdale College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan known today for its independence from government funding and rejection of government affirmative-action programs. It’s also my college. This is the story of a small frontier school and its stand on the principles of human dignity and the importance of education in a free society.
A handful of determined men, led by Ransom Dunn, rode thousands of miles on horseback, asking for contributions from farmers and settlers, in order to raise the funds necessary to found Hillsdale in the 1840s. From the beginning, the college expressly welcomed students of all races, even at a time when slavery still thrived in the South. The founders of the College focused on the study of the great books of the Western Tradition, stretching all the way back to Cicero, Aristotle, Plato and the Christian Bible. This tradition included the same works which guided the American Founding Fathers during the birth of our nation, from the ancients up through Locke, and Hobbes. By contrast, the College eschewed the novel, pseudoscientific ideas of men like John C. Calhoun, who declared slavery good and proper based on the “intellectual” differences between whites and blacks.
Over 400 of Hillsdale’s men fought for the Union in the Civil War, dedicated to the principle that “all men are created equal.” A monument on Hillsdale’s campus, positioned near a statue of Abraham Lincoln with bowed head, reminds students today of the price their predecessors paid in the defense of liberty and human dignity.
Fast forward to the days of the Civil Rights movement. In the face of mounting political pressure, the federal government began regulating both public and private colleges in order to promote minority achievement. While Hillsdale had never discriminated based on race and boasted a far more principled track record than the federal government on the issue, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare insisted that the college begin measuring student admissions and achievement by race for purposes of affirmative action. If the college did not comply, the Department threatened that federal student loans (one of the few forms of taxpayer money then accepted at Hillsdale) would be withheld from Hillsdale students.
Following court battles, the College finally resolved, “Let the government keep its money. Let us keep our Independence.”
Today, the College takes no taxpayer funding of any form, choosing to match any government loan offers with privately donated money. Students still study and discuss the same great works which inspired the Founders of both the College and the nation. Hillsdale stands today as one of only two American colleges (the other being Grove City College in Pennsylvania) to refuse all federal money as a matter of principle. Even incredibly well-endowed Ivy League Schools often bend over backwards in order to maintain a flow of taxpayer money. Colleges exist to pursue knowledge and truth, and when that pursuit slackens in favor of currying political favor, the college has clearly gone off track. We need more strong colleges who will prioritize principles over government grants and step up to educate their students in the roots of American liberty.