Hillsdale College stayed open for the full 2020 – 2021 school year, despite hurdles posed by government responses to COVID-19, something that was only possible because “we’re stubborn,” according to college President Larry Arnn.
“This is our business and we couldn’t see a good reason not to do it,” Arnn said.
While Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services required colleges to move classes online for two weeks last November, Hillsdale students remained on campus for the entire school year.
Reflecting on the year as a whole, Arnn said the greatest challenge to Hillsdale continuing in its mission was “the governor and her regulations.”
“There was way too much quarantining of healthy young people, and we were constantly threatened that they would close the college,” Arnn said. “Finally, they did order some colleges to close. But I had decided that if they did order us to close that we wouldn’t close. And see what they did.”
The ever-changing, and often contradictory, guidelines and rules regulating life after COVID-19 meant it was sometimes impossible to know what was actually legal, according to Arnn.
“The regulations are contradictory to themselves,” Arnn said. “So there isn’t a strictly legal way to proceed. So we navigated between them. We had as much college as we thought we could.”
Hillsdale College has seen 276 positive COVID-19 cases in the entire academic year, 216 of which were in the fall semester. At the peak of the viral spread in mid-November, the college had a total of 76 positive cases on campus. The University of Michigan saw 4,810 cases at its peak, while Michigan State University saw 3,301, according to the New York Times.
As of April 19, four students are currently in 10-day isolation after having tested positive for COVID-19. Two students are in quarantine due to contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. More than 422 individual students have been tested throughout the spring 2021 semester, 60 of whom have tested positive. Of the 60 positive cases, 56 have recovered. The college has not reported a single case of COVID-19 being transmitted in a classroom in the past nine months, according to Arnn.
Hillsdale College did submit to a partial shutdown in November, when the MDHHS ordered all colleges to switch to virtual teaching methods. For the last two weeks of the semester, professors taught remotely. Yet Arnn recounted how students continued to live in the dorms, eat in the dining hall, and use the public facilities, as the health department’s order did not specify that they couldn’t.
“You have to do what you think is right,” Arnn said. “Any important thing you do, there will be more than one opinion about the good of it. So we navigated between the conviction that this was not dangerous to young people — less dangerous than the regular flu, by the way — and the regulations. And we tried to find a legal way to proceed.”
Arnn said the college decided against suing the governor or the health department because the fall term would have ended by the time the college could file a lawsuit.
Throughout the year, he said the college’s position has been a bit different from other universities. Rather than taking its cues from what others were doing or what government bodies recommended, Arnn said the college made decisions based on the risk the virus presented and what the law actually required.
“Do we not have a duty to form a view about this thing, and proceed according to it, to the extent that the law allows? Aren’t we supposed to do that?” he said.
Hillsdale’s 169th commencement ceremony will take place on May 8, as planned. Arnn said he doesn’t know how other colleges will handle graduation, but expects Hillsdale isn’t unique in this.
“I imagine everyone will do it,” he said.