Hillsdale Ph.D. candidates Sarah Akey and Casey Wheatland will receive their doctorates this May after successfully defending their dissertations with honors earlier this semester.
“It’s always a great satisfaction when a student finishes a top-quality dissertation,” Professor of Politics Thomas West said. “It’s the academic equivalent of a proud father seeing his own children grow up.”
Wheatland graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in political science and history before enrolling in Hillsdale’s Ph.D program in 2016.
“I had not known about Hillsdale College until about a month before applying here,” Wheatland said. “I found Hillsdale because I was reading a book in the library on Machiavelli and that book happened to be written by Dr. Paul Rahe. I thought: Hillsdale College. I wonder if they have a graduate school. It would be cool to study with this guy.”
In his dissertation, Wheatland focused on the relationship between the Italian Dominican and friar Girolamo Savonarola and how he influenced Machiavelli’s political philosophy.
“My dissertation was using Savonarola as an entryway to discuss the nature of prophecy and logic in Machiavelli’s political philosophy, and what exactly it takes to create a regime or to reform a regime, and to rule over it,” Wheatland said.
Wheatland stumbled upon Savonarola during his first year of graduate school after reading the rest of Machiavelli’s works. Wheatland said he discovered how influential Savonarola was to Machiavelli’s thought.
One thing I learned is how important it is to have a community of friends to help deliberate about these political philosophies and discuss interesting figures like Machiavelli,” Wheatland said.
Wheatland hopes to continue his interest in this topic by turning his dissertation into a book. Since the fall of 2021, Wheatland has been teaching in the politics department at Texas State University.
“Casey was not outspoken in class,” Professor of History and adviser Paul Rahe said. “He was the Cheshire cat. When he did speak up, you noticed. He was awake. He was alive. He noticed things that other students missed. His writing was also good — actually enjoyable to read. And he had a wry sense of humor. He watched, he waited, he pounced.”
Akey finished her undergraduate degree at Hillsdale College in mathematics and politics in 2016. After completing a semester in Washington, D.C., on the college’s WHIP program, she discovered her interest in the philosophical questions surrounding politics.
“I was working on research for Dr. John Grant on Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy, and he made a comment to me that I was thinking clearly and deeply enough about the topic to be able to teach it at the collegiate level,” Akey said. “A few other professors in the politics department noted to me that I could successfully complete graduate work in the field.”
In her dissertation, Akey said she aimed to disrupt caricatures in scholarly literature on Locke. She said most scholars see him as either a theologian who thought Christianity and politics were completely separate or as an atheistic philosopher who hated Christianity.
“I wanted to show that Locke takes Christianity seriously and thinks that it has practical political consequences,” she said. “Christianity tells humans how to think and act, and these thoughts and actions affect individuals, families, communities, and governments.”
She argued morality to be the unifier between Christianity and politics in Locke’s philosophy.
Akey also said she hopes to turn her dissertation into a book.
“In the future, I would like to teach political science, humanities, and U.S. history courses as those opportunities arise,” Akey said. “Because of my keen interest in my family — I am married, have an almost-2-year-old daughter, and a son due in July — I currently plan to teach and research as my schedule allows,” she said.
Akey was awarded the Judith Finn Memorial Exemplary Master’s Graduate Award in 2018.
“Sarah was unusually gifted,” West said. “We would discuss academic topics as equals, as if she already had a Ph.D. It made it easy to be her first reader.”