Hillsdale College Controversy Continues in Tennessee

Gov. Lee speaks at Whitehaven High School Commencement, May 21, 2022

Gov. Bill Lee continues to face statewide, bipartisan criticism for not defending Tennessee’s teachers after an education partner made disparaging comments about public education.

NewsChannel 5 revealed a secretly filmed video that shows Larry Arnn, president of Michigan’s conservative Hillsdale College, remarking that “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country" at a private reception here in Tennessee. Arnn also remarked that "you don't have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it."

On Monday, NewsChannel 5 released additional footage from 2021 that shows Arnn dissing public colleges. “What happens at those state universities is that they’re clones of the most elite, to the best of their ability," he says in the video. "Very common, that is. It’s the third-tier ones and second-tier ones, some, that train the teachers."

Following NewsChannel 5’s initial report, droves of people expressed their concern over the matter, including politicians like Lt. Gov Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), state House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), Senate Education Committee First Vice Chair John Lundberg (R-Bristol) and state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), along with teachers, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and others. John Cagle tweeted that he would step down from his role on the state Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners “due to [Gov. Lee’s] refusal to defend Tennessee teachers from insults made his friend from [Hillsdale College].” A Chattanooga charter school with ties to Hillsdale College has since terminated the relationship, as reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Gov. Lee announced his intention to partner with Hillsdale College during this year’s State of the State address, planning to bring 50 Hillsdale-sponsored charter schools to the state. Lee said that the college is a “standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.” Arnn was appointed by former President Donald Trump to lead the White House’s 1776 Commission — which has since been dismantled by the Biden administration. As reported by Politico, the Hillsdale curriculum was inspired by the work of the commission. 

Gov. Lee defended himself in a radio interview with Matt Murphy from SuperTalk 99.7 WTN. “I'm not going to rebut someone who was speaking about left-wing problems in public education in this country that have actually hurt the genuine work of our teachers," said Lee during the interview. "It was not a conversation about Tennessee teachers then, and it's not going to become a debate about them now.”

Regardless of Lee’s perspective, Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis), who is chair of the House Education Administration Committee and a supporter of charter schools, said he will not support an alliance with Hillsdale College moving forward.

“I've talked to enough members that any conversation that will bring Hillsdale in just won’t have any chance of moving forward next year,” said White. “If you're having a conversation, and, for example, legislation supporting that, you would just lose the conversation real quickly.”

A representative from Hillsdale College did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.