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Hillsdale — For a school that doesn’t take any federal aid, Hillsdale College is the subject of increasing federal interest among high-profile Republican elected officials and conservatives.

Vice President Mike Pence’s Saturday commencement speech, in which he called the college “a beacon of liberty and American ideals,” arguably is proof of such attention. Pence spoke for roughly 15 minutes at Hillsdale’s 166th commencement and called the school’s president, Larry Arnn, a friend and mentor.

“We live in a time when too many disregard that wisdom of the past that Dr. Arnn spoke about so eloquently, but here you’ve been grounded in the traditions and teachings that are our greatest inheritance in America,” Pence said.

Pence’s visit is the latest of federal nods toward the small liberal arts college in south Michigan. The college hosted Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas two years ago, its president last year reportedly was considered for U.S. education secretary and the school was at the center of a federal tax break debate in 2017.

In an effort to avoid federal regulations and interference, Hillsdale College accepts no federal funding, one of the hallmarks that sets it apart among conservative supporters, said Matthew Spalding, associate vice president for Hillsdale.

That may be why Pence agreed to speak there in the first place, Spalding said.

“Hillsdale is a well-known, but historically serious school that stands for the independent thinking and teaching of ideas that he recognizes at the heart of American constitutionalism,” Spalding said.

Founded in 1844, the college has about 1,400 students and a satellite campus in Washington D.C. Since it takes no federal funding the school funds scholarships for students primarily through an endowment, the total of which recently stood at about $354 million.

The school said 367 students graduated on Saturday, including the college’s first ever PhD recipients.

Though it’s size is small, the attention it’s garnered over the years is not.

Besides Pence, notable speakers there include Thomas in 2016, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1994, and former President Ronald Reagan in 1977.

Hillsdale leaders are no stranger to the national political scene either.

Arnn, a leader in banning affirmative action in California in the 1990s, endorsed and stayed loyal to Trump during the 2016 election. And Trump, in turn, reportedly considered Arnn for education secretary, but settled instead on Grand Rapids area school choice advocate and philanthropist Betsy DeVos.

Arnn drew flak in 2013 when, during a hearing on the state’s adoption of the common core curriculum, he referred to minority students as “dark ones.” Arnn later apologized for the comment, which was made while he was explaining the state’s interest in the school’s diversity.

Late last year, the school came under national scrutiny when a Republican senator proposed a carveout in the tax package that would exempt certain colleges that don’t receive federal funds from paying a new tax on investment income. Democrats complained that Hillsdale College would be the only school in the U.S. to benefit from the exemption and blocked the provision in December.

But the final version lifted the endowment amount that would trigger the tax on investment income, again exempting Hillsdale College, as well as several other schools.

Pence’s visit came a few days after DeVos signaled she could relax some federal regulations on funding for religious colleges and universities, capitalizing on a Supreme Court decision that restricted states from denying some aid to religious institutions. The Supreme Court case involved a Missouri preschool run by a Lutheran church that had been denied publicly funded tire scraps for its playground.

The education department said the eligibility of faith-based institutions or activities would be reviewed to “reduce or eliminate” some burdens and restrictions.

Hillsdale is considered a Christian school, Spalding said, but likely wouldn’t be impacted by DeVos’ policy because of its refusal to accept federal aid.

DeVos at times has been linked to the school through her brother, Erik Prince. Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, is a graduate of Hillsdale.

He’s not the only notable graduate from the institution.

In February, Trump nominated Hillsdale graduate Joseph Cella to serve as ambassador to Fiji. Cella, 48, of Augusta Twp., also led the Trump campaign’s Catholic advisory council during 2016 campaign.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice David Viviano and his six siblings also graduated from the school. “It’s been a big part of our family over the years,” he said.

Viviano said he’s not surprised by the fact that people like Pence and Thomas have chosen to speak at the campus. He said the college’s consistent adherence to the Constitution and its independent nature show “that the federal government doesn’t have to control everything.”

“Those are the things Hillsdale has always been talking about,” Viviano said. “I think at different times in history people are more interested in listening.”

Hillsdale alumnus Aric Nesbitt agreed. A former State Representative running for state Senate, Nesbitt said the college instills a sense of civic duty among students.

“They are making an impact and a difference in the public sphere, in government and in politics,” Nesbitt said. “They (graduates) may not all be running for office…but there’s a lot of folks behind the scenes, whether its staff, or think tanks, or public policy, or activists.”

Take for example, Josh Przygocki, one of Saturday’s graduates who will work on Nesbitt’s campaign this summer.

Przygocki decided on Hillsdale because he had an interest in politics and Hillsdale is well known for as much in conservative circles. Pence’s visit, he said, is further proof of that recognition.

“As much as they distance themselves from federal politics by refusing to take federal aid, I think the school is kind of inadvertently involving itself in that sphere,” he said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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