In Michigan’s rural outback, it’s not that odd to hear the sounds of guns.
Of course, there’s deer hunting season.
And maybe militia groups practicing and plotting to kidnap and kill the governor.
But near the campus of Hillsdale College, disciplined gun sounds abound at the John Anthony Halter Shooting Sports Education Center.
Here, student-athletes for the Chargers bring honor and glory to an ultra-conservative institution of higher learning that is proud of its fidelity to the Constitution of the United States of America and to its Second Amendment “right to bear arms.”
Bang! Bang! Bang!
In addition to its long-established shotgun team, Hillsdale recently started a pistol-shooting team that won a national competition last spring in its first year.
That team is coached by a local cop named Adam Burlew, a part-time deputy with the Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department and a “casual” employee of campus security, according to responses from both agencies when reached by telephone.
Burlew is a good shot, too. He proved it last year when he shot to death not only a dog named Rico but also the dog’s owner, Oscar Herrera. Both dog and man attacked the deputy, the sheriff’s office said — the dog first with its teeth, the man next with a knife.
After the local prosecutor exonerated the local deputy, the mother of the dead man sued the deputy and the sheriff in federal court. The case is in discovery until Nov. 10 and is scheduled to go to jury trial on June 20.
Ian P. Fallon, the lawyer for Herrera’s mother, said the shooting was preventable and that the deputy showed a “tragic lack of compassion and common sense.”
In a news release on the day of the filing, the lawyer said the deputy and the county sheriff, Scott Hodshire, “will be held accountable for the ‘shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later’ decision making that cost Oscar Herrera his life.”
Is this legal circumstance of Hillsdale’s pistol-shooting coach another example of the College’s increasingly belligerent public personality?
Might his continued presence be in part a symbolic gesture by a multi-tentacled educational juggernaut that enjoys serious clout with both the extremist elected officials of the Republican Party and with the radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court?
Well, perhaps, in part, but it is not so simple.
The authorities at the private, Christian school — located in southern Michigan near Indiana and Ohio — chose not to answer questions for this report about the Hillsdale gun teams or the cop who coaches one of them or about anything else.
Messages sent to Burlew were not returned. His lawyer chose not to speak on his behalf for this report.
Despite repeated requests, Hillsdale also stonewalled questions about:
Hillsdale’s nationwide foray out of its college sphere and into charter schools and conservative curriculums for students from kindergarten through high school;
The recent attack on schools of education by Hillsdale President Larry P. Arnn, a key political ally of former President Donald Trump. Among other things, Arnn said teachers come from the “dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges”;
Hillsdale’s new “1776 curriculum” based on Trump’s “1776 Report” from a committee run by Arnn. Trump formed it to counter the “1619 Project” by the New York Times, which presents American history from an African-American point of view and is now taught in some schools;
That recent photograph of Pat Sajak, the host of Wheel of Fortune, smiling alongside Marjorie Taylor-Greene, the conspiracy-spouting Congresswoman from Georgia. (Why would it matter if a TV game host posed with a daffy Republican legislator? Because Sajak is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Hillsdale College.)
Or about Hillsdale’s view of American history that treats the Constitution not as a mere governing document written by wealthy politicians centuries ago but as Holy Writ left by saints of olden days to be interpreted only by the high priests of the Federalist Society, the soothsayers of the Heritage Foundation, and the wealthy donors who fund Hillsdale’s endowment of more than $900 million to keep it free from federal funding.
Had the school spoken up on behalf of its pistol-shooting coach, it could have said:
Adam Burlew is completely innocent. Body-camera video telecast by WWMT, Channel 3, shows both shootings were likely justified.
In the video, the dog — a large, brown, pit bull — bursts through the screen door of a house, bounds down the steps, and charges the cop, who fires at least four shots. The owner walks to the dead animal and talks to the cop, who points a Taser at him.
“You shot my dog, bro,” says the man, who calls his dog his best friend.
“Dude,” the cop says, “your dog bit me. That’s why it got shot.”
“Don’t shoot me,” the man says.
“I’m not gonna shoot you,” the cop says. “Sorry about your dog.”
But the tension escalates when the man rises from his knees, puts his hand in a back pocket and advances toward the cop. The cop then points a gun at him and says:
“Wait, don’t! Do not do that! Sir, put that down! Put that down right now!”
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
At least four more shots are heard on the recording.
According to an Associated Press account posted at the time of the lawsuit, “State Police said (Herrera) confronted deputy Adam Burlew with a knife . . . A paramedic later found a folding knife in a closed position on the ground, though the knife was open with the blade sticking out when state police recovered it, the lawsuit says.”
Whatever the outcome of his court case or the institutional logic behind his continued coaching presence, Burlew’s pistol-shooting team is but the most recent manifestation of a Hillsdale posture that is increasingly on the cultural warpath and views guns as more than mere tools for target shoots.
Charles Steele — an economics professor who is the shooting team’s faculty advisor — says in a video on the web site Armory Life that “the Constitution is primarily set up to protect the rights of the people” and that “the Second Amendment is the amendment that protects the First Amendment.”
The First Amendment pertains to free speech; the Second to gun “rights.”
“It is important to promote something like the Second Amendment and promote the shooting sports and shooting activities,” Steele says, “because the ultimate guarantee of freedom is that we are capable of defending it ourselves.”
Supporting this in the same video is John Cervini, identified as vice-president of institutional advancement for Hillsdale. He praises the recent partnership between Hillsdale and the Springfield Armory, which provides guns to Hillsdale.
“We believe that Springfield and Hillsdale College are lockstep in our belief and support of the Constitution and the Second Amendment,” Cervini says in the video.
The video ends with a musical note on the soundtrack that grows heavier and louder as the screen shows seven shooters slowly raising their guns and aiming them at the camera.
Even if Hillsdale won’t discuss Coach Burlew or anything else, its scholastic, religious, and cultural messages nevertheless come across loudly and clearly over its extensive and sophisticated internet presence.
The site offers to the public — free of charge and easy to access — courses like “Constitution 101” and “The Genesis Story.”
“We’re on our way up through angels toward God,” Arnn says in the Genesis course video. “In Christianity, Jesus is the word.”
Hillsdale’s monthly newsletter “Imprimus” claims 6.2 million readers. It appears online and on slick, printed paper on campus and elsewhere. The headlines read like segments of prime-time opinion shows on Fox News Channel.
“The Rise of Wokeness in the Military;”
“The Politicization of the Department of Justice;”
“Spiraling Violence in Chicago;”
“Critical Race Theory: What It Is and How to Fight It;”
“The January 6 Insurrection Hoax.”
Arnn took over Hillsdale in 2000 after a sordid, sex-and-suicide scandal forced the departure of the previous president.
Since then, with growing might, Hillsdale has mixed fast-moving streams of education, politics, culture, patriotism, and religion into a roaring rapids of what some might call militant, white, Christian nationalism.
Arnn has courted (and has been courted by) Republican governors like Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Bill Lee of Tennessee.
Noem said she hoped her state could build a satellite campus for Hillsdale. South Dakota recently paid Hillsdale professor emeritus William Morrisey $200,000 to facilitate a revision of the state’s social studies content standards.
A South Dakota historian named Stephen Jackson joined the Social Studies Work Group to make suggestions for the improvement of the teaching of history, particularly that of tribes indigenous to that state.
Writing in the “Perspectives on History” web site last week, Jackson said Morrisey ignored most of what that study group had suggested.
“Morrisey wrote the draft of the standards before the commission even met,” he wrote, calling Morrisey’s choices “censorship.”
Jackson wrote that Noem has made opposition to Critical Race Theory a central part of her political brand. In that CRT is a way of making sense of racial history, Jackson also wrote: “Locally and nationally, history education is at the center of US culture wars.”
With growing might, Hillsdale has mixed fast-moving streams of education, politics, culture, patriotism, and religion into a roaring rapids of what some might call militant, white, Christian nationalism.
Arnn’s contempt for teachers came clear last summer as Hillsdale was about to launch its own post-graduate program in education.
“The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arne said in Tennessee at a conference with Gov. Lee.
“The philosophic understanding at the heart of modern education is enslavement,” Arnn said. “Education destroys generations of people. It’s devastating. It’s like the plague. You don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”
His comments brought blowback from Hillsdale’s many critics. They are happy to define the philosophy behind both its tidy Michigan campus and its “satellite campus” on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., which hosts courses, speeches, and conferences.
One such critic is Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group for public schools.
A former high-school principal, she is wary of many things, including Hillsdale’s foray into charter schools and K-12 curriculum as well as the larger overall push for “vouchers” and “school choice” by which public money might eventually fund religious and private schools.
“(Hillsdale) College’s mission is to maintain ‘immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith,’” Burris says in a telephone interview. “Now, obviously, they cannot do that directly with charter schools.”
That’s because charters are public schools, but privately run. When public money is involved, there is still, technically, a separation between church and state.
“What they do, instead, is they use a call for ‘moral virtue,’” Burris continues. “But the reality of these schools is they are designed to grow adults with the very narrow-minded, white, Eurocentric perspective in order to fuel the conservative movement.”
One example of Hillsdale influence in metro Detroit will be “The Hill Pointe School” somewhere in the Grosse Pointes. On its web site, the new school promises its “location will be announced soon!” and that kindergarten through fifth grade classes will begin in 2023.
The Hillsdale logo appears on the Hill Pointe website.
“The Hill Pointe School funding board is united in their admiration of the mission and vision of Hillsdale College,” the web site says. “ . . . Hillsdale provides enrichment training to the faculty and staff throughout the school years.”
Hillsdale also provides a good deal of public rancor. To borrow the metaphors of gun vocabulary, Arnn and his colleagues at Hillsdale sometimes shoot off their mouths — and sometimes shoot themselves in the foot, figuratively speaking, of course.
Arnn, for instance, can see the positive side of a tyrant. In his 2015 book Churchill’s Trial, Arnn wrote of Adolf Hitler’s popularity in Germany until World War II.
“Forget for a moment that we know Hitler to be a monster,” Arnn wrote. “Remember that he was for years one of the most exciting forces to arise in modern European history, and that he appeared to millions as a figure of hope. Following the First World War, his country was in the throes of steep decline, and he was returning it to order and health.”
Another prominent Hillsdale figure, the professor David Azerrad, said earlier this year in a speech at a Catholic college in Pennsylvania that Kamala Harris is an “affirmative-action vice-president” who got the job due to only the color of her skin.
Dismissing the theory of “white privilege” in the United States, Azerrad said deserving whites are often overlooked in favor of mediocre Blacks who are “showered with praise” for minor accomplishments. He also said nobody today would know of the scientist George Washington Carver had he not been Black.
In his speech titled “Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America,” Azerrad said: “This Black privilege not to be offended is increasingly being supplemented by a Black demand to be honored in all realms regardless of accomplishments.”
After mis-pronouncing the Vice-President’s first name more than once, Azerrad said: “The real color of privilege in America today is Black.”
Azerrad is an assistant professor and research fellow at Hillsdale’s Van Andel graduate school of government in Washington. This “satellite campus” stands across the street from the Heritage Foundation. Azerrad once worked at Heritage, as have many Hillsdale figures.
The capital complex is called the “Allan P. Kirby, Jr., Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.” It opened in 2010 near Capitol Hill. Its web site says “the 16,000 square foot building houses a large lecture hall for public lectures, educational seminars, and congressional briefings.”
Hillsdale often has insisted that its Washington headquarters — a building blended from three Victorian-era townhouses — is not a place for lobbying but for education.
According to its web site, the Kirby Center merely offers “reception parlors, classrooms, a beautiful Americanist and liberal arts reading library and study space for Hillsdale students, and offices for the Hillsdale in D.C. faculty and staff.”
A piece four years ago in Politico reported: “Kirby hosts caucus retreats and regular dinners with members of Congress and staff to discuss finer points of constitutional governance.
“It’s also home to several schlocky paintings of Churchill and the founding fathers, a glass-encased first edition of the Federalist Papers donated by conservative radio host Mark Levin,” Politico reported, “and two dozen or so interns each semester — most, but not all, of whom work on Capitol Hill or in conservative media — and a studio where The Federalist founder Ben Domenech records his daily podcast.”
In addition, the Center boasts the presence of Mollie Hemingway, a right-wing commentator listed by Hillsdale as a “teaching fellow for journalism.”
In 2018, a Politico headline called Hillsdale “The College That Wants to Take Over Washington” and joked that Hillsdale is the real “Trump University,” not to be confused with Trump’s disbanded scam school of real estate.
Certainly, Hillsdale is media-savvy within its own silo. Commercials for Hillsdale ran frequently on the right-wing radio show of the late Rush Limbaugh and Hilldale’s instructors are often interviewed as experts on right-wing radio stations like WJR in Detroit.
When the Center opened, one of its first hires was Limbaugh confidante Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. One of her duties was to bring in guest speakers.
During the ongoing debate over the 2020 Presidential election, Mrs. Thomas has been one of the most aggressive proponents of Trump’s Big Lie that the White House was stolen from him by current President Joe Biden.
Her husband spoke at the Hillsdale commencement in 2016 and called Hillsdale a “shining city on a hill.” Wikipedia lists Clarence Thomas as a “visiting faculty and fellow” at Hillsdale, but the school did not respond to a request for comment regarding his current input.
“It has been some years since my wife, Virginia, and I have been to Hillsdale together,” Thomas said in the commencement speech in 2016. “Of course, we have known Dr. and Mrs. Arnn for many, many years. And we have been quite close to Hillsdale.”
Proximity to the Supreme Court has become a Hillsdale selling point and this approach has become even more pointed since Trump, as president, placed three religious fundamentalists on the Court.
Those three — Neil Gorsuch, Brett (Suds) Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — joined Thomas, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts earlier this year to overturn Roe v. Wade and take away a woman’s Constitutional right to choose abortion.
In the near future, this extremist Court might attack gay rights, as Thomas has ominously suggested. Next on the docket: Affirmative action in colleges. Much of the homework for such rulings comes from law clerks, who are not merely office helpers but rather work as legal research scholars for the Justices.
Coincidentally, a proud post this semester on Hillsdale’s “alumni marketing” site is titled “Supreme Assignment” and it brags that “The Hillsdale College alumni pipeline to the Supreme Court continues.”
When it was founded, Hillsdale’s high calling was to abolish human slavery — back then, Republicans were the left-wing liberals who nominated Abraham Lincoln, their first successful presidential candidate, in 1860.
“During the past two decades, the College has had six graduates serve as clerks to the nation’s highest court,” the story says. “Add three more to that total, as Elliot Gaiser, ’12, Garrett West, ’15, and Manuel Valle, ’11, recently completed their terms in Washington, D.C. Gaiser and West clerked for Associate Justice Samuel Alito while Valle clerked for Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.”
But wait, there’s more to this loop.
“Gaiser and West were back on the Hillsdale campus to start the academic year,” the story reports, “teaching a course titled ‘Constitutional Interpretation’ and also speaking at a Federalist Society event.”
Although the school officially offers a bachelor’s degree in ancient “liberal arts,” its contemporary students also try to master the current conservative crafts.
One example: As votes were being counted in the 2020 Presidential election at Detroit’s TCF Center, Hillsdale students responded when Republicans protesters chanted “Stop the Count!” and insisted that Trump was being cheated.
About a dozen Hillsdale students scrambled from Simpson Residence dorm and piled into three cars to drive 100 miles to the Motor City to join the protest.
“That was when I was a sophomore,” student Austin Harm recalled. “That was a long time ago. I’ve gotten older and matured a little bit.”
But Harm said Detroit election authorities would not let the student protestors crash the main room to challenge the ballots.
“After that,” he said, “we just got pizza.”
He said he didn’t know what Hillsdale students might do this year if they disagree with the midterm election results on Nov. 8.
The school had a different kind of political urgency when it was founded in 1844 by Free Will Baptists amid the hills and dales of the American frontier. This was only seven years after Michigan became the 26th state in the union, even before northern neighbors like Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Back then, Hillsdale’s high calling was to abolish human slavery.
An early president, Edmund Burke Fairfield, helped form the brand-new Republican Party in nearby Jackson shortly before the Civil War. Back then, Republicans were the left-wing liberals who nominated Abraham Lincoln, their first successful presidential candidate, in 1860.
When the war came the following year, many Hillsdale students volunteered to serve in the Union Army and 60 Hillsdale students died in the conflict.
A monument to those veterans graces the lawn in front of Central Hall, near the intersection of Hillsdale Street and College Street. Other statues on the pretty campus include those of the English prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery, campaigned for its abolition, and lectured at Hillsdale before the war.
A century later, in 1966, Hillsdale made international news when many students reported seeing the bright lights of an unidentified flying object on campus. Authorities dismissed the phenomenon as “swamp gas” from decaying vegetation. No similar sightings on campus have since been reported.
Another major event that put Hillsdale in the spotlight came in 1999 when the daughter-in-law of the school president killed herself outdoors at the campus Arboretum with a gunshot to the head from a .38 special after revealing a long-term affair with her father-in-law.
That leader was George Roche III, who was admired by conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr., who interviewed Roche along with Friedrich Hayek on the TV show Firing Line in 1977. That video is a jarring time trip.
Roche — lanky and suave in a tailored suit and polished in his authoritative tone — quotes Shakespeare to attack social justice efforts as merely the power grabs of greedy governments.
“Power must make perforce a universal prey and last eat up himself,” Roche concludes. He also mocks affirmative action with a dismissive “There are Lithuanian minorities as well as Black or whatever.”
And Roche is eerily predictive when he tells Buckley that the typical General Motors factory worker in a Hamtramck bar (this is 45 years ago) is backing away from unions like the United Auto Workers because inflation and taxation reduce spending power despite periodic raises.
“The practical politics that once caused the average working man to be aggressively oriented toward organized labor might not be working any longer,” Roche said. “The ability of organized labor to hold its troops together . . . may be coming to an end.”
This sort of self-fulfilling prophecy also came from President Ronald Reagan, who appeared with Roche in a promotional video for Hillsdale.
“Hillsdale deserves the appreciation of all who labor for freedom,” Reagan says on the video. “Your creative outreach on national issues enables little Hillsdale to cast such a long shadow.”
Some might think that the shadow of Roche's sex-and-suicide scandal would have taken the momentum out of a place that preached its family values and moral superiority. But after replacing Roche, Arnn opened up the throttle.
His Barney Charter School Initiative began in 2010, right about the time Hillsdale opened its Washington campus, during the “Tea Party” backlash against Barack Obama, the first Black president.
Burris — Arnn’s critic from the NPE — said the Hillsdale president is not so much interested in money as he is in political power. Nevertheless, she conceded, he is an impressive fund-raiser.
“He received a huge grant from the Barney Family Foundation,” Burris says. “Arnn has been really masterful in getting funding from the DeVos family, from the Walton Family Foundation, and from other, deep-pocketed individuals and foundations that all hold this vision — this very conservative, libertarian vision — of what the world should be and how to best prepare young people to espouse the beliefs that they believe in.”
Burris said Hillsdale and Arnn have successfully created what she called a mythology about a rigorous curriculum that teaches phonics, Latin, and Great Books.
“What they are about,” Burris says of Hillsdale, “is raising the next generation of conservative thinkers and right-wing Republicans.” The college is said to appeal to some survivalist families, to those whose children were home-schooled and to students from outside Michigan.
Hillsdale refuses to provide statistics regarding race or anything else, but a one-day walking tour of its campus recently indicated the student population (about 1,500) is at least 90% white, the faculty even more so.
Arnn makes no secret of his partisanship with race-baiters like Trump.
His endorsement of Trump in 2016 enabled a faction of conservative educators to support the Republican candidate. As a reward, Arnn has said, Trump considered Arnn for Secretary of Education before choosing Betsy DeVos, a West Michigan Republican whose family has close ties to Hillsdale.
One prominent Hillsdale graduate is her brother, the security consultant Erik Prince. His “Blackwater USA” mercenaries fought in Iraq for the United States and were accused there of murdering 17 civilians in a Baghdad gun massacre.
After four Blackwater contractors were convicted, Trump pardoned them shortly before Trump’s words sparked an insurrection of seditious rioters to attack the U.S. Capitol, where some chanted “hang Mike Pence!” (Trump’s vice-president) on January 6, 2021.
Prince’s sister, Betsy, has long advocated charter schools and “voucher programs.” Under vouchers and “school choice” policies, public tax money could go to private and religious schools instead of to public schools.
It is a step beyond the charter school concept. The movement toward privatization of public money for education is happening so quickly that sometimes the categories seem to blur.
And this is fortunate for DeVos and Hillsdale in their effort to undermine public education because the Covid pandemic forced parents to be more aware of things like sex education and racial history being taught in their public schools.
Two years ago, on a visit to Hillsdale reported by the Detroit News, DeVos said “Parents are more aware than ever before how and what their children are — or are not — learning. And far too many of them are stuck with no choices, no help and no way forward.”
MLive recently reported that, as of 2021, Hillsdale had partnerships with more than 70 charter schools, reaching more than 14,500 students. But as Hillsdale has become more strident in its public posture, some charter schools have backed away from alliance with the College.
They became disillusioned with what they perceived as Hillsdale’s heavy-handed influence in not only the curriculum but also on who gets to run the schools.
In Colorado, Derec Shuler — CEO of Ascent Classical Academies — told MLive “We’re still partners, but we’re going to be more removed partners in the future.”
In Tennessee, several local school boards have had second thoughts after reading Arnn’s recent email again attacking educators outside the Hillsdale bubble.
“In many instances,” he wrote in the email, “instead of classes of substance, they find lectures on highly-charged subjects like racism and sexuality — subjects that should be broached, not by teachers, but by the child’s own parents.”
Nashville TV station WTVF reported: “An online course — which Hillsdale recommends as a resource for the charter school teachers — portrays Black Lives Matter and other modern-day civil rights movements as being a threat to the country.”
Along with topics of race and sex, Hillsdale’s educational efforts often include immigration, another hot-button issue for right-wing fear mongering.
In his online Hillsdale course called “American Citizenship and Its Decline,” professor Victor David Hanson declared immigration a plot by leftists to gain control over elections.
“It’s just simply a large influx, sort of a late Roman Empire migration, soley for the purpose of enhancing the progressive agenda of the Democratic Party,” he said, “or the idea that these are going to be new constituents . . . We have no border and there is no immigration law.”
Another example was the “Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar” in Franklin, Tennessee, last April. A featured speaker was Abigail Shrirer, the author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.
She called transgender awareness a “social contagion” among teen-age girls who wish to “stick it to mom” by becoming boys. Without citing evidence, she said “gender-confused people” attend rallies sponsored by Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
“We must refuse to recite the lies that warp our children and wreck our families,” Shrirer said. “A cultural battle is at last being fought.”
Following a wave of applause, she said: “This is the first audience I’ve been to that didn’t want to throw things at me.”
In a question-and-answer session after her speech, she said Ivy League schools allow young women to enter as females and graduate as men.
“In some cases, they end up without their breasts,” Shrirer said. “It absolutely happens.”
After a brief pause, she added: “I guess that’s an advertisement for Hillsdale.”