WASHINGTON (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, famous for rejecting all federal and state funding to help guarantee its independence, has long been a darling among conservatives.
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh pitches for it. And Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher have written for the campus digest Imprimis.
In the last year, the conservative infatuation with Hillsdale has bloomed in Washington with the college's opening of its Kirby Center -- three remodeled townhouses turned into one 16,000-square-foot space for classes, other student programs and speeches by influential leaders.
Lecturers and students there say they're seeking political truths, such as what it means to be an American, with a focus on how the government is adhering -- or not -- to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
The Kirby Center is near the Capitol and across the street from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, a participant, along with the conservative Federalist Society, in the college's James Madison Fellows Program.
Besides lecture and classroom space, the Kirby Center has intimate libraries, study rooms and parlors. Amway heir and Alticor Chairman Steve Van Andel, a Hillsdale grad from Grand Rapids who gave his financial support, has his name on the lecture hall.
Hillsdale had a presence in Washington before the Kirby Center opened. Its internship program has been going strong for more than 35 years. Over the years, it has placed students with former Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others.
What sets school apart
Hillsdale President Larry Arnn said that Americans live in "a time when the Constitution is largely ignored" by policy-makers.
"Maybe that's why people are interested in Hillsdale College," he told the Free Press, "because they teach these fundamentals, things not everybody else does."
Founded in 1844, Hillsdale was the first U.S. college to prohibit in its charter discrimination by race, religion or gender. Its officials did not feel beholden to report to federal authorities otherwise.
In Michigan, Hillsdale's core curriculum is focused on the classics. In Washington, the seven to 10 students selected every semester work at think tanks, congressional offices, publications or elsewhere while discussing the finer points of the Founding Fathers' intentions.
Students are free to intern at institutions less tied to conservatism, but most don't. Most students are at Hillsdale because of its conservative politics.
"This is kind of the political evangelical arm of Hillsdale," said Brittany Baldwin, a 21-year-old American studies major from Houston who spent the winter-spring semester last year in WHIP, the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program. "It's the way students who do enjoy politics can go out and have an experience that allows them to put all these principles to use."
Study- or intern-in-Washington programs aren't new.
The Washington Center, which places about 400 students per semester into internships, is probably the largest.
The University of Michigan's office in Washington provides legislative internship opportunities, and Michigan State University has programs for all students and a separate one through its law school.
But Hillsdale's Washington link is different.
"It is more focused than most schools. Schools that are here are typically broader in their range of perspectives," said Jennifer Clinton, chief operating officer of the Washington Center. The American Association of University Professors has had Hillsdale on its censure list since 1988, following the firing of a tenure-track professor who published an article in the student newspaper critical of the administration. Twice a year since, said the AAUP's Greg Scholtz, the organization has tried to contact Hillsdale about altering its status.
Hillsdale officials don't reply. They didn't agree with the finding, and they're unconcerned with what the AAUP thinks.
When it comes to independence, said Hillsdale's Washington director David Bobb, "it's nonnegotiable."
The money for Hillsdale's Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington came from Allan P. Kirby Jr. -- but how much is secret. The New Jersey investor didn't attend Hillsdale but, like many others, was impressed by its commitment to teach what Bobb calls "the right things" -- i.e., the Constitution and the principles and traditions that inform it.
It's much more than right-wing dogma, Bobb said. Students explore how policies comport with the founders' intentions. In the Wall Street bailouts. In health care reform. In spending laws.
That means picking apart, say, Republican Paul Ryan's "Roadmap to America's Future." It means not only reading Cicero and Thomas Jefferson but also Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. (Some of the latter's writing are listed under the heading "The Progressive Rejection of the Founding" in the school's constitutional reading list, however.)
The mission, Bobb said, is to "understand what the principles are" because, if they're lost, "we're going to lose our liberty."
What students gain
The practicalities of governing come into play, however.
Senior Nick Youngstrom, 22, of Milford, Ohio, interned in Boehner's office. He had wide-ranging job duties, including taking notes at House and Senate Armed Services Committee meetings and reporting back to Boehner's staff.
Though he remains a staunch conservative, he found a fresh appreciation for the art of compromise and the way that things get done.
"There's inflammatory language and rhetoric on both sides, but I guess the one thing I'm taking away is, at the end of the day, our system of government does work," he said.
Former intern Baldwin worked at Heritage. One of her jobs was to track which sections of the Constitution were cited under a new U.S. House rule, introduced by Republican leadership when it took back the majority this year. The rule requires that every piece of legislation trace its authority to the Constitution.
"It was a great internship program," said Baldwin, who hopes to be a speechwriter someday.
Though not everyone decides that Washington is in their future, some, like Youngstrom, do.
Graduation is this spring, then he's getting married in June.
"Hopefully, I'll be back in D.C. by July," he said.
First, he needs to find a job.
DETROIT FREE PRESS