Hillsdale College President Explains Why Campus Will Be Open This Fall

Hillsdale College will be one of the only colleges, if not the only college, this year planning to hold an in-person commencement ceremony for its graduates.

Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and a trustee of The Heritage Foundation, joins The Daily Signal Podcast today to discuss why the college has chosen to take this stand. He also talks about why Hillsdale College plans to be welcoming students back in the fall, Generation Z, and more.

Listen to the podcast, or read the lightly edited transcript below.

We also cover these stories:

  • The Justice Department is investigating “unmasking” that occurred before and after the 2016 election.
  • Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, says social media platforms should not be arbiters of truth. 
  • President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday that about 100,000 people have died in the United States due to the coronavirus. 

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, who also has been on the board of The Heritage Foundation since 2002. President Arnn, it’s great to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Larry Arnn: Great to be with you. [I’m a] big admirer of The Daily Signal.

Del Guidice: Well, thank you so much for making the time to join us.

You recently came out with a decision to host in-person commencement for the graduating class of 2020 at Hillsdale, which is something that virtually every other educational institution hasn’t done this year because of COVID. Can you tell us about that?

Arnn: First of all, the default is, we’re going to have college. That’s what we do. We’ve been doing it for 175 years. We didn’t stop in the Civil War and we didn’t stop in the world wars and we didn’t stop in the Great Depression. You wouldn’t stop now unless there was a really good reason. And I don’t think there is one.

First of all, it now appears clear that this thing is not dangerous to young people. And if it were, that would be different. But it’s not hard to isolate old people. Because a college is full of young people.

I’m an old person. Well, if I don’t want to be around them, I could teach online. I’m not going to do that myself, but some will.

And you have to have the disinfectants. And so you … have to have quarantine rooms. Although, I very much doubt we’re going to need them. We do have all that stuff.

The main thing is, we have a right to have college, just like everybody has a right to do what it takes to make a living and to better himself. And so we intend to do it. And I don’t think that will be stopped. But if somebody tries to stop us, we’ll resist that.

Del Guidice: How did you come to the decision to have this in-person commencement, as the plan is?

Arnn: Well, if you work in a college and you keep your eyes open, what do you learn?

Commencement is the highest ceremony in a college. It’s not really the seniors’ big day out. It’s the annual symbol of the achievement the college seeks. And that is, to build in oneself the moral and intellectual virtues. And that takes all of us. By celebrating the seniors, we celebrate the common effort.

And who comes to commencement? What does it take to make the achievement of a grown person of good quality? It takes that person, they have to work and they have the talent. It takes the parents of that person. It takes the teachers. It takes the friends of the college and of the student.

So if you just look out at a big commencement crowd, we get 3,000 or 4,000, typically—not that many this time I expect. If you look out on the crowd, those are all who’ve made this happen and they need to get together.

For the same reason, John Henry Newman writes in the “Idea of a University,” a great book of the 19th century, that if you had to choose in a college between having a faculty or having a community among the students, you would choose the community among the students because they learn from each other, and with each other, and they love each other.

So the idea that you can do that as well remotely is crazy.

When the shutdown came …. we have a very aggressive governor in this state. She has promulgated 60 some rules in about that many days—multipage, detailed documents. The FAQ, the frequently asked questions, has 850 points in it. So nobody can even read that.

Anyway, when the shutdown came, the kids are panicked, right? Because, first of all, let’s say you’re a senior and it’s the last half of the spring term, your last term, you’re deprived of something big. You’re deprived of the combination of all your work. You’re deprived of the chance to say goodbye.

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So, I announced that we’re going to find a day and have commencement. We’re going to give the kids some travel money so they can all come back and we’re going to have a big party of just the kind you’re supposed to have. And we’ll take care of that it’s safe, but we’re going to do it.

Del Guidice: You all have also announced that you’re planning to have in-person classes come the fall semester. Can you talk a little bit about too, about just the context and how you came to that decision as well to plan this in the fall?

Arnn: Well, … when this thing hit, the kids were away for spring break. And you know, colleges all over America announced that they weren’t inviting the kids back. I announced that too, but only for two weeks while I found out this one single fact that matters in a college: Is this thing dangerous to the young?

Because if it is dangerous to the young, they live closely together. That’s the whole point. That’s the charm of it. And so if they’re going to get sick, then [they] will get sick more often if they’re together. If it’s going to kill them or severely injure them, then you can’t bring them back.

But come to find out that, to the extent that this thing varies from the regular flu about, it’s danger of severe illness or death to the young, it’s less than that. And so they’re not going to die of this. And they think they’re immortal anyway.

Here’s a fact to pay attention to, I think, so the first estimates of the death rate of this coronavirus were 3.5% from the World Health Organization.

Today, as we speak, there’s overall death rate projected on the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] website of 0.0026%. That’s more than a hundred times lower than the initial projections. And it shows that the death rates are concentrated among people over 70 years old, where they rise to as high as 0.1%.

So the point is, I think it’s safe. But to be doubly sure, then we’re going to take everybody’s temperature and we’re going to sanitize the rooms. … We already have, and we bought, a bunch more equipment for that. And we’ve got a health care facility and it has got ventilators in it now. I doubt if we’ll ever use them, but we bought some. …

And then I just got off the phone with one of my favorite faculty members, a wonderful lady. And she wanted to talk to me directly because she’s afraid, given her age, to teach in class. I said, “Well, don’t. Nobody’s going to be required to do that.”

The students, if they want to study from home may do so. And some of them may do it, especially if they have what they call comorbidities.

But I said, “No harm or pressure is going to come to you. All the classrooms are set up. You can stay home and they can be in the classroom, or they can be home.”

I would guess that very few of the students, nearly none, will stay home. And I would guess that six or eight out of 140 faculty members will teach from home. But I don’t care how many it is. We can handle it.

That’s another thing about this. Right now, it looks like, it seems true, a very concentrated part of the population is at risk to this. And so our reaction to that is not to protect them, our reaction is to stop the whole country. But you can’t do that.

I proposed to some people in the White House, I said, “Here’s a new rule of public health. It should be the first rule. If you prevent people [from] making a living, they will die. Which is why we call it a living.”

And so this whole thing of shutting down the whole economy, and I agree, I do not criticize that, that was done. That it continues seems, to me, monstrous. It doesn’t continue everywhere, it’s just [that] I happen to be in one of those places where it does.

Del Guidice: President Arnn, what kind of response have you received not only from current students, or maybe students who are graduating, but also from potential students who are seeing the kind of stand that you’re taking and I’m sure have been vocal about it. What are you hearing?

Arnn: It’s amazing to me, Hillsdale College is a united, happy place. We’re all here for the same reason. We all signed a code about that. We know we’re supposed to be friends. And we are. Having said that, the college has turned into a big, old love fest now. …

I taught three classes last term. And all the classes ended with us all professing our love for each other. And I get a huge correspondence from students. And it sounds crazy to say it, but I don’t have any complaints. And what they thank me for is being determined to go ahead and have school and for the seniors to have a proper commencement.

Because think of your own life. You are, doubtless, a young person, and these years are precious. The time of the young is actually more precious than the time of old people like me. Because what you do when you’re young is you build the ability, morally and intellectually, to have a great life.

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You need to be about that business urgently. And every achievement you make in that direction will have benefits over a long life that you can look forward to.

So to interrupt the work of the young is an especially grievous thing. And we don’t think like that. …

Remember, we’re governed now by expertise. The federal government is more than half the size of the American economy and we’ve just borrowed 25% of the gross domestic product to pay people to stay home and not work. And they make these rules, but they don’t really quite know what they’re doing.

If you work in a college and watch, you get a sense of what makes it work. And something inspires the labor that will turn an adolescent into an educated 21-year-old. And that thing is what’s precious. And that’s what makes America go too.

So, the point is, yeah, people are happy that we’re going to come back to work. And if it were true that it were dangerous, well, first of all, I think it isn’t, but second, if you think it is, you don’t have to come. Well, then, that takes the pressure off that.

As I say, I think the overwhelming majority will come. We already hear from them. They’re planning to come.

Del Guidice: … For those who aren’t … familiar with Hillsdale College and the incredible institution you are, can you talk a little bit about what makes Hillsdale education so unique?

Arnn: First of all, we’re an old college, right? We were founded before the Civil War by some New England preachers who were classically-educated patriots. Some of them became friends with Abraham Lincoln. We had a big part in the Civil War. …

Every college in the world of any age, let’s say, was founded with the idea that there are some things that are proper for a person to know because they’re a person, the human things, right? And they’re not job training, although that’s valuable. They’re something different. They’re what you need to know to be an excellent human being and a leading citizen.

Hillsdale College was founded for that stuff. And that gave rise. It was prevalent everywhere in the 19th [century] and more than about half of the 20th century. But that gave rise to a curriculum that was common for all the students. And today we refer to that as a core curriculum. And very few colleges have one of any size.

In our college, half the courses are the same for every student. And that means, when we get together in the dining hall, whether you’re a football player or a physics major—which, by the way, overlap quite a lot—or a singer or whatever, it means half the time …

I’ll put it this way, I have three students I’ve had in class who play in the National Football League. And I have seven who’ve been clerks on the Supreme Court. Half the time those 10 kids took the same classes as each other. And a lot of them are friends with each other. …

And Hillsdale College doesn’t take any money from the government. … The money started being offered in about 1960. And that was an interesting story. I’ve written a book about it.

The Sputnik crisis, Russia got a satellite up in the air before we did. And that was seized as an opportunity to multiply federal influence in colleges and universities. And there’s documentary evidence about that. They’d been wanting to do that for a long time. They tried to do it several times. So we didn’t think that was right.

And we were just an old-fashioned place that thought if the government is in charge of colleges, how can there be independence from the government to train for leadership and citizenship?

A lot of colleges said that in 1960. And then one by one by one all but five or six or seven have started doing it. And we just never did. And it’s been good for us not to do it because it reminds us why we have to think about our purposes seriously, because we get financed differently than almost all of our competitors.

Del Guidice: You all at Hillsdale College recently launched a website that’s dedicated to parents and teachers for K-12 classical education resources. Can you tell us about this?

Arnn: We are sponsoring 22 charter schools now spread around the country and a bunch of others associated with us in one way or another. And it’s growing. …

First of all, K-12 education is not rocket science, it’s K-12 education. And there are great ways to do it that are known best by people who do it. And so we do it, and we have all these other schools and they’re our partners. And we’ve built a curriculum that we’re refining all the time.

The urgent thing this summer is, we’re trying to keep the intensity up in K-12 education because learning is a very intense thing. And if you don’t work hard, you won’t learn. And I said earlier, that’s a special tragedy for the young people because they need to learn now so they can have a great life for the rest of their life.

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Del Guidice: Well, as college costs continue to rise and young adults deal with huge student loan payments, some are wondering, especially at this point in time, if a college education is worth it. What would you say to someone who is questioning whether they should attend college?

Arnn: Well, if your purpose in going to college is to get a job and make money, then it sort of depends on the job. But it’s not, as a general rule, a good idea. …

When we think of higher education, what makes it higher? It’s not just more, it’s also something above. And everybody has in common that they have to make a living. But also, everybody has in common that they have to figure out what to do with that living and how to live. And college in the old sense, and the best sense, is about that.

So the reason to go to college is to become a better person that will make you more employable.

But you know, if it’s just to get a job, I can point you to a welding school in Detroit. Actually, [it’s an] inspiring place, and we supplied the civics curriculum to this welding school. And you can be a certified welder in 12 weeks, 15 weeks. It costs $17,000. And when you walk out the door, you’ll have a job paying $85,000. …

Welders are in short supply. And I asked the people who founded it, … and they’re very great people, manufacturers in Detroit. And I said, “Well, aren’t robots going to do the welding?” They said, “Probably, it doesn’t matter.” He said, “The people we train, they become supervisors in a year or two because they become adaptable and know how to work.”

The point is, you don’t need a four-year education and the stuff they teach in colleges today, that’s as much an obstacle as it is a help to getting a job. …

I would say, if you’re going to go just for that reason, [you] probably shouldn’t come to Hillsdale College, because you’re going to have to learn a foreign language and read a bunch of 3,000-year-old books.

Del Guidice: As the university president, just lastly here, what do you think about Generation Z who are beginning to go to college and how do they compare to past generations?

Arnn: That’s hard to say. … What I can really answer is how do we compare the students today to the students five years ago and 10 years ago?

Well, the ones who are going to college now have always had a cellphone and [have] always been on social media. And our kids are unusual. They’re pretty good.

And they come here because they know it’s difficult. It’s not easy to get in. But they are not used to arguing. And what I mean is, you say this, and I say something back, and then you compare your views and try to reach a resolution of it.

Social media teaches people to be just emphatic. You just assert what you want to, free to denounce people. Now, our kids don’t do that, but there’s a lot of that on social media. There will be denunciations of me in the comments on this podcast, I’ll bet you, right? And because we just do that.

Whereas if you’re in the presence of somebody, you’re much more reluctant to do that. And that’s bad, right? And it’s not good for young people. This idea of unidirectional conversations—that is to say you talk, and I talk, but we don’t really listen to each other—that’s not good.

Instant is another thing. I just read a really great article called “Deep Reading” [by] a very brilliant man. And he explains that if you read a very difficult book—first of all, there are some books that you should read for the rest of your life. And you can’t read very many like that.

One of my greatest professors said, first graduate school class I ever went to, “You should pick three books. And by the time you die, you should know what’s in them.” And that means you have to read them over and over again.

Well, if you do that, you’ve put a bunch of stuff together that reaches everywhere human knowledge goes. And if, on the other hand, you read a bunch of tweets, the quantity might be the same, but the effect is not the same. …

They’re still what? They’re 15,000 kids in the schools now? And they all follow a curriculum that we devised with the schools. Well, they don’t use technology in the classroom because they need to learn to read and think and compute and do it themselves.

So, yeah, I worry about things like that. And we notice some change in our student body, but we’re a pretty intense place so we can adjust. Our reaction to that is, well, OK then, it’s going to get tougher.

Del Guidice: President Arnn, thank you so much for joining us today on The Daily Signal Podcast. We appreciate it.

Arnn: Thank you very much. Good work for you and you guys are great people.

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