Larry Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of your talents and hobbies?
Motorcycle riding. I have three. A bunch of us, including several working for the college, go on summer trips all over the place. I’ve been to California, West Virginia, and we’re going down south this summer to New Orleans.
Have you ever played a really good prank on someone?
At a bachelor party for one of my high school friends, we shaved off half of his mustache. We held him down.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A lawyer. Why did I decide that? Probably a lawyer show on T.V. I wanted to do it seriously until I almost finished college and was accepted to law school.
What made you change your mind?
I was forced to take a course on Plato’s “Republic.” I tried to get out of it, and I was conquered by the course. It changed a lot of things.
If you could own an unconventional pet, what would it be?
I had a mischievous friend in boyhood, and he gave me bad pets. He gave me alligators, doves, and an iguana. The iguana was a great pet. His name was Cecil.
What’s something funny or sweet one of your students has said to you?
I get letters from students that are beautiful and I keep them. Sometimes I get serious suggestions that are absurd on their face, like, “Move the college to the Bahamas.” I don’t get that one as much anymore. In the early days, I got suggestions that we should expand visitation hours in the dorms. A few times I would say, “Do you remember that I’m a boy, too?”
What’s your favorite drink?
Coffee. Strong coffee. If I drink alcohol, I drink mostly scotch on the rocks.
Who is one person you wish was a Hillsdale professor?
I set out to hire Victor Hanson and I’ve still not succeeded in doing that full time. I’ve been doing that for 20 years and am not likely to give up.
Is there a historical figure who you would hire as a Hillsdale professor?
I’ve had a couple of teachers that were important to me, and one of them was a professor here before he died. I miss him, Martin Gilbert. Harry Jaffa would have been fun around here.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three books would you like to have with you other than the Bible?
That’s not even hard. Of course I would have the “Nicomachean Ethics,” Plato’s “Republic,” and Shakespeare’s plays.
What is one piece of common knowledge you learned way too late in life?
Useful things. I’m pumping iron now because I figured out that’s a way to fix my aching back. Carl Young is the apostle of pumping iron around here.
What is something you have recently changed your mind about?
Grandchildren are even better than children.
What is something you used to believe that you still believe today?
The good is that for which all things aim.
What is the good?
The good is each thing being what it is in its wholeness.
What is the bad?
Each thing spoiled of its good. The bad is only a negative thing. It just breaks the being of something. Think of the worst person, like Hitler. These are people with enormous gifts, and they destroyed themselves and their gifts.
What is one movie you think everyone should watch?
“A Man for All Seasons.”
What’s your favorite Bible verse?
What is one thing you wish Hillsdale students knew about you?
Well, I tell the students all the time that I love them. To work in a college you have to like young people. If you do like them, then you can participate in the central activity of the college.
Who are the most famous people you’ve met?
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I actually knew them fairly well. My favorite famous person is Clarence Thomas.
What were they like?
Margaret Thatcher was a curious mixture. She was a little bit like my wife’s mother. She had a sense of propriety, and then on the other hand, she was very firm. I once told Ronald Reagan, “Well Mr. President, you’re the greatest man I’ve ever met, but you’ve always seemed a little soft to me. I lived in England when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and she was very strong.” He said, “That’s hardly even a fair comparison.” I later told her that I told him that, and she scolded me.
If you could interview Winston Churchill, what would you ask him?
I think that there are things that he came to understand that are very wonderful, and some of those things I think I understand, and I attribute that to my teachers and the books that I’ve read. But he didn’t read some of those books, as far as I know. How did you figure all that out? I would ask him that.
What is one piece of advice you try to live by?
Do the right thing. When you get in positions of responsibility, that advice is more acute and immediate because you make choices all the time. The hard ones involve risk either of suffering something or of forgoing something good. In the end, when you choose and you find out how it works out, whether it works out well or badly, you will be comforted by knowing that you thought it was the right thing to do.