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‘Conservative Citadel’ Comes to Capitol Hill

The Michigan college that National Review once touted as a “citadel of American conservatism” is making its mark on Capitol Hill.

Hillsdale College has long had success placing interns in Washington, D.C., and connecting with conservative lawmakers. Now it also has a physical presence in Washington.

Late last year, the private college opened the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship at 227 Massachusetts Ave. NE, a stone’s throw from the Capitol, to hold classes for students in its internship program and host public events and lectures. 

Despite having just 1,300 enrolled students, the college has “an outsized footprint on the Hill,” according to alumnus Bentley Graves, chief of staff for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

“Hillsdale is trying to attract those kind of students who are interested in getting involved in politics, policymaking and government, and educating them, and then giving them the tools they need to really make a difference and move a conservative message,” Graves said. “When you have a school that attracts those kinds of people and has that as their mission, it makes sense that you see it turning out people who look to the Hill as a place they want to be.”

According to Hillsdale spokesman Joe Cella, about 20 alumni work on the Hill in positions ranging from legislative assistant to chief of staff.

They bring with them an education steeped in constitutional principles, limited government and individual liberty — a decidedly conservative take on the typical liberal arts education. 

In keeping with its mission, the college operates completely without federal or state funding. Students take a core curriculum modeled on a classical liberal arts education with a required course on the Constitution, keeping with its mission statement of “maintaining inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture.”

Alumni said it’s great training for working on the Hill.

“Hillsdale really provided the intellectual foundation for policy analysis in my job,” said Clark Peterson, legislative director for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “It provides a great education about American political history, political philosophy, constitutional law, economics — all these important foundations for working in the legislative branch.”

Founded in 1844 by abolitionists, Hillsdale College has long celebrated its independent streak. The school prides itself on its nondiscrimination charter and its freedom from government funding. The college immediately admitted black students after its founding, and more than 400 students enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

“It was a place that from its outset was a fighting school and has continued in that with tremendous devotion to its original mission,” Kirby Center Director David J. Bobb said.

The college aims to take its mission promoting limited government and constitutional principles to Capitol Hill with a host of new programs and opportunities for lawmakers and the general public.

The Hill is already turning to the center as a resource, Bobb said, thanks to the newfound fervor for the Constitution. With the reading of the document at the start of the 112th Congress and the new Constitutional Authority Statement required for bills in the House, Bobb said Hillsdale is looking forward to using its D.C. location to engage with Members.

“This is precisely what we exist to do — to foster debate and to make an argument that the Constitution means something,” Bobb said. “There’s a tendency for some Members to say that you have to be an attorney or a judge to weigh in on the Constitution, and we think that is contrary to the understanding the founders had and what we ought to have today.”

Graves, a 2005 graduate who studied political economy and moved to D.C. for a Heritage Foundation internship before joining King’s team, said he credits Hillsdale with developing his political ideology. He noted, however, that the college’s educational experience focuses on the intellectual side of conservatism rather than a political agenda.

“One thing that people always think about when they hear conservative college is Republican factory, but honestly, over my time there I became much more conservative than I was knee-jerk Republican,” Graves said. “And I think a lot of kids come out of Hillsdale that way, with a much greater appreciation for what it means to be a limited government, constitutional conservative and more motivated by that than pure politics.”

Will Dunham, a legislative assistant for Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), described his Hillsdale experience studying English literature as “apolitical.” He said, however, that attending the college offered him a chance to study and discuss the U.S.’s founding in a way that few other Hill staffers have had the opportunity to do.

“You come away from all that with a really good political, theoretical underpinning for the contemporary debates we’re having now,” Dunham said. “I relate what we’re doing now, more than the average staffer, back to those original documents and back to the thoughts and theories that underpin them. It’s more of a frame of mind.”

For Dunham, Hillsdale’s presence on Capitol Hill means that unique frame of mind will travel beyond the “conservative citadel.”

“Hillsdale, in a way, rather than driving the conversation right, provides that academic, thoughtful philosophical grounding that may even be a moderating voice among constitutional conservatives,” Dunham said. “I hope people don’t say, ‘Oh Hillsdale, a right-wing extremist training camp.’ It’s a place where intellectual exploration is important and diversity of viewpoints is important, and that’s something they’re bringing to Washington.”