Students of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship hosted Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Friday night for their annual President’s Day banquet. Lee spoke about his life, policies, and the importance of faith in God.
Lee opened his remarks by telling the crowd about his time on campus so far, which included touring the school, meeting with students from Tennessee, and sitting in on President Larry Arnn’s Statesmanship of Winston Churchill class. He also noted the special holiday.
“It’s a little intimidating to be Valentine’s Day date night,” he said with a laugh. “Not sure how that happened.”
The governor talked about his appreciation for the ideas the graduate students spend their time studying.
“I’m proud of the tradition of celebrating statesmanship here,” he said. “Our country’s been blessed with statesmen, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God put the right people in place at the right time for our country.”
Lee said many of the historical figures who inspire him are featured on Hillsdale’s Liberty Walk, and he attempts to model his decisions after them.
“I passed Ronald Reagan out there,” he said. “I thought about his commitment to restoring our appreciation for freedom and individual liberty.”
Lee is the 50th governor of Tennessee and previously served as the CEO and president of his mechanical appliance family business, Lee Company, where he supervised 1,200 employees.
President of the Graduate Student Society Russell Richardson is a Tennessean and introduced Lee to the group.
“We spend a lot of time studying politics by reading and discussing the great political works of the past,” he said. “Rarer are opportunities to learn about statesmanship from those practicing it today.”
The annual banquet has previously featured professors and scholars, but this is the first year an elected official has spoken.
Sophomore Sascha Steinhausler is a lifelong resident of Tennessee and met with the governor before the banquet.
“He’s incredibly honest and straightforward,” she said. “No matter what he’s talking about, if he believes it’s right, he’ll go for it.”
She said she appreciates his willingness to support policies, even if they are politically harmful, like his controversial school voucher bill, which gives students in failing schools $7,200 to attend private schools.
Lee spoke at length about this issue and his commitment to “engage students in an educational system that gives them opportunity.”
According to statistics cited by Lee, one in three students born into poverty don’t finish high school, and if one doesn’t finish high school, they are highly likely to stay in poverty.
“Low-income students deserve the exact same opportunity that every other kid does,” he said. “When parents have choices, their children not only have better outcomes but the entire system begins to be transformed.”
The governor praised Hillsdale for its commitment to private schools with the Barney Charter School Initiative.
“This institution has been instrumental in developing charter schools across the country,” he said.
Lee spoke about several other priorities his administration is working on throughout the dinner, including vocational training, prison reform, incorporating refugees into his state, and protecting the unborn.
In January, Lee announced he will propose sweeping new pro-life legislation to the Tennessee legislature later this year. The bill will include requiring a mother to receive an ultrasound and not allowing abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Sophomore Jack Coker, who is also from Tennessee, said he appreciates Lee’s commitment to vote his conscience on issues like protecting the unborn, despite being unpopular.
“He’s a man of really strong character,” Coker said. “He had to do what he believed was right, and I really appreciate that.”
In the Searle Center, decorated with large paintings from the revolutionary era, including the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” piece, Lee closed his remarks with encouraging students to pursue God and follow the “north star” as they finish their studies and go on to serve the country.
“My prayer for you is that you truly seek God for his wisdom,” he said. “He desires to show you the highest call for your life because He’s equipped you for it.”
The crowd met his remarks with applause and many students went up to him afterward to shake his hand and ask for autographs. With each signature, he noted a bible verse, Psalm 71:14, followed by his name.
As he prepared to head back home, Lee said he was impressed by the college and the student body, and that he left encouraged.
“What a beautiful and inspiring place,” he said. “This is a very fine group of people and it gives me great hope for the future of our country.”