After the horrific police killing of George Floyd, activists are demanding that all kinds of institutions condemn racism and take action to fight the “institutional racism” that supposedly plagues America. Organization after organization, company after company has made virtue-signaling statements and donated hefty sums to Black Lives Matter and other leftist organizations claiming to oppose racism by advancing a radical agenda. My alma mater, Hillsdale College, which was founded in part to oppose racism at a time of truly despicable institutional racism, has found itself accused of complicity if not worse for remaining “silent” on these issues.
The leaders of Hillsdale College have refused to cave to pressure, however. They wrote a powerful response to the outrage mob, explaining that Hillsdale opposes racism and injustice — as it always has done — and condemning the “cheap” virtue of jumping on “cost-free bandwagons of public feeling.”
Many of my fellow alumni have attacked Hillsdale College for its alleged silence, though Hillsdale has never been silent. My alma mater was founded in 1844 by freewill Baptists who established an institution of higher learning that did not discriminate on the basis of race or sex. The college was founded by abolitionists and the male students left en masse to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The college invited former slave Frederick Douglass to speak.
Yet even former alumni — who may not have paid attention in class — have charged Hillsdale with “negligence — or worse.”
“The College is told that invoking the high example of the Civil War or Frederick Douglass is not permitted. Perhaps it is thought that nothing relevant can be learned about justice and equality from the words and actions of great men and women in history. Instead, the College is guilty of the gravest moral failure for not making declarations about … justice and equality,” Hillsdale’s leaders wrote.
“The College is told that it garners no honor now for its abolitionist past — or that it fails to live up to that past — but instead it must issue statements today. Statements about what? It must issue statements about the brutal and deadly evil of hating other people and/or treating them differently because of the color of their skin. That is, it must issue statements about the very things that moved the abolitionists whom the College has ever invoked.”
Hillsdale College has always decried “racism and the mistreatment of Black Americans in particular,” and it paid a high price for those stances. Indeed, the college does not partake in federal government programs because it refuses to count its students by race. Hillsdale sacrifices millions in federal aid in order to take this stance.
While “it is not the practice of the College to respond to petitions or other instruments meant to gain an object by pressure,” the leaders laid out some “helpful and pertinent” observations.
Alumni accuse Hillsdale of “an erasure, a complicity, an abandonment of principle” for its refusal to make a statement. “The silence of the College is deafening.”
Yet every aspect of Hillsdale College’s operation is a statement.
“The College founding is a statement — as is each reiteration and reminder of its meaning and necessity. The curriculum is a statement, especially in its faithful presentation of the College’s founding mission. Teaching is a statement, especially as it takes up — with vigor — the evils we are alleged to ignore, evils like murder, brutality, injustice, destruction of person or property, and passionate irrationality. Teaching these same things across all the land is a statement, or a thousand statements,” the leaders argued.
“Organizing our practical affairs so that we can maintain principles of equity and justice — though the cost is high and sympathy is short — is a statement,” they continued. “Dispensing unparalleled financial help to students who cannot afford even a moderate tuition, is a statement. Helping private and public schools across the country lift their primary and secondary students out of a sea of disadvantages with excellent instruction, curricula, and the civic principles of freedom and equality — without any recompense to the College — is a statement.”
“Postgraduate programs with the express aim of advancing the ideas of human dignity, justice, equality, and the citizen as the source of the government’s power, these are all statements,” the leaders added, referencing the graduate schools in Hillsdale, Mich., and Washington, D.C., dedicated to statesmanship.
“And all of these statements are acts, deeds that speak, undertaken and perpetuated now, every day, all the time. Everything the College does, though its work is not that of an activist or agitator, is for the moral and intellectual uplift of all,” the leaders argued.
They went on to rebuke the outrage culture that demanded an empty “statement” while insisting that Hillsdale’s history, principles, and actions are insufficient. “There may be something deafening in the culture—certainly there are those who cannot hear — but it is not from the silence of the College.”
“There is a kind of virtue that is cheap. It consists of jumping on cost-free bandwagons of public feeling — perhaps even deeply justified public feeling — and winning approval by espousing the right opinion,” the leaders warned. “No one who wishes the College to issue statements is assumed to be a party to such behavior. But the fact that very real racial problems are now being cynically exploited for profit, gain, and public favor by some organizations and people is impossible to overlook. It is a scandal and a shame that compounds our ills and impedes their correction.”
“Hillsdale College, though far from perfect, will continue to do the work of education in the great principles that are, second only to divine grace, the solution to the grave ills that beset our times,” the leaders concluded.
While I understand that many of my fellow alumni are outraged over horrific events like the killing of George Floyd, I would encourage them to recall what Hillsdale actually taught us — not just how Hillsdale is presented in advertising on Rush Limbaugh. Hillsdale does indeed reckon with America’s painful history of race-based slavery. The college teaches the Western Heritage, the American Heritage, and the Constitution, each with an eye to upholding justice and correcting the evils of the past — as well as learning the foundations from which to do so.
Hillsdale College is not perfect, but its refusal to jump on this particular bandwagon is wise. The college has consistently condemned racism, and paid a higher price for it than most. While some alumni may be frustrated with Hillsdale’s conservative advertising and its association with the conservative movement in general, they should acknowledge that the college is truly dedicated to pursuing truth and defending liberty — for all people, emphatically including racial minorities.
Indeed, Hillsdale supports the foundations of American liberty and equality, teaching the basic principles that undergird the very outrage against racism that so many want the college to express in an empty statement. Hillsdale College’s silence is not deafening, though it tragically seems that the college’s million statements are falling on deaf ears.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.