HILLSDALE, Mich. - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney first met Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn in Washington.
Mr. Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, had graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah and Harvard, yet he greeted Mr. Arnn with:
"How is our college, and how is our state?"
Mr. Arnn said he thought for a moment before everything clicked. The state comment made sense because Mr. Romney grew up in Michigan. And as for the "our college," many Republicans do think of Hillsdale as their own.
After all, a Hillsdale president helped found the GOP in nearby Jackson, Mich., more than 150 years ago. The college itself espouses a limited-government philosophy near and dear to many party loyalists that Mr. Romney - Hillsdale's graduation speaker on Saturday - must sway to win the presidential nomination.
Commencement speeches can be bellwethers of a candidate's strategy.
Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke at the predominantly African-American Wilberforce University near Dayton yesterday.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani yesterday addressed graduates of The Citadel, a military academy in the battleground primary state of South Carolina.
The students at Hillsdale invited Mr. Romney to their campus, an offer his campaign said he accepted in order to speak at a college in Michigan, where his father, George, was governor. As of now, no college from Massachusetts has asked Mr. Romney to deliver its commencement address.
But Hillsdale is distancing itself from Republicans, who will enter the 2008 election weighed down by an unpopular war and a voter rebuke last year of President Bush that gave the Democrats majorities in the House and Senate.
Issues such as abortion, immigration, and taxes motivate partisans. Hillsdale values ideas, a subtle discrepancy revealed within the classroom that is the source of the college's reputation among conservatives. At Hillsdale, the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas on just-war theory can be as critical as the presence of WMDs.
"It is not the purpose of this place to change the politics of America," Mr. Arnn recently said in his office. "We're not a political party around here."
Mr. Arnn arrived at Hillsdale in 2000. He succeeded George Roche III, whose 28-year tenure ended in scandal after his daughter-in-law, alleging she had an affair with him, committed suicide in the college's arboretum.
Between sips of coffee from a Bill of Rights mug, Mr. Arnn explained that he traded the California sunshine of the Clare-mont Institute for Michigan winters because of Hillsdale's articles of association.
That document, he quoted, charges the college to develop the "moral, social, and artistic instruction and culture as will best develop the minds and improve the hearts of the students."
Hillsdale refuses to accept any government funds. It replaces federal scholarships and loans with private funds from a $265 million endowment. When administrators subtract financial aid from Hillsdale's $26,430 sticker price, the average annual cost drops to $13,430.
The college defies affirmative action and does not track the ethnic make-up of its 1,300 students. In a video to promote Hillsdale called "Educating for Liberty," Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says this policy dates to Hillsdale's establishment by Free-Will Baptists as an abolitionist institution that admitted blacks.
Hillsdale publishes Imprimis, a monthly that reaches more than 1.25 million readers and runs speeches given at college events by the likes of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The college stores on-line the complete writings of William F. Buckley, a grandfather of modern conservative ideology.
An outsider could confuse Hillsdale classes for boosterism of past Republican administrations.
A morning history class trumpeted President Reagan's 1981 tax cut as clearing the way for Microsoft, the Sony Walkman, and fax machines.
"The arguments have been documented 100 times on the theoretical level that the government raising money doesn't help the economy," said freshman Andrew Cureton, who can instantly tell his professor that Richard Nixon won every state in the 1972 presidential election except Massachusetts.
When students talk in class, they tend do so with a certainty of their convictions. Lauren Clark, a senior, said intellectual rigor matters more than ideological shading.
"What's the slogan?" she said. "Hillsdale College: Where your best hasn't been good enough since 1844."
The college requires students to complete a course on the Constitution, one that often influences their perspective on government.
Jeremiah Regan, a junior history major, said his political views have morphed since high school.
"I was a Republican when I came to Hillsdale," he said. "I'm much less Republican now and have loyalty to conservative ideas."
Hillsdale endorses this type of culture in an honor code that freshmen sign each fall. It asks them to engage in "self-government," a pledge meant to uphold every person's "natural rights" for the common good.
Senior class President Hans Zeiger, an American studies major, said their education is grounded in classical works that span Plato to Thomas Jefferson.
"It's not an Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity kind of conservatism," Mr. Zeiger said.
But the trouble with ideas is that they can imperfectly manifest themselves in actions. A war where the mission was accomplished can last long after a president's speech, causing the Republicans hoping to succeed Mr. Bush to run on the promise of pacifying the Iraqi insurgency.
The three GOP front-runners campaign toward that particular end. Sen. John McCain of Arizona wants more troops. Mr. Romney favors 100,000 more soldiers. Mr. Giuliani is against a timetable for withdrawal.
At a Hillsdale seminar last week on St. Thomas Aquinas, students debated the confusion between the means and the ends. And for some, the consequences are divine, not electoral.
"Are Catholics allowed to fight in unjust wars, like say the war in Iraq?" asked freshman Raymond Spiotta.
"My own view is that the war is troubling," responded politics professor Nathan Schlueter. "The evidence isn't sufficiently clear to resolve it one way or another."
Contact Joshua Boak at:
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