'Freedom's College' keeps the Founders' flame

Grove City College has been called “Freedom’s College” for its dedication to and advocacy of the principles of self-government that underpin American democracy: individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.

From its founding a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence to this day, the 242nd anniversary of that world-changing statement, the College has been committed to developing leaders of the highest proficiency, purpose and principles to advance the common good.

College founder Isaac Ketler imagined a College that would prepare its students to be responsible and productive citizens of a free society, able to play an active and decisive role in the building of a country that was recovering from the Civil War, undergoing an industrial revolution and on the cusp of becoming the world’s essential nation.

His vision remains the College’s vision and thousands of graduates have realized it thanks to an institutional mission that promotes the foundations of a free society as well as the Christian worldview and the love of neighbor.

While most Grove City College graduates live out that vision in their daily lives with family, at work and in their churches and communities, others have made advancing it their life’s work.

They have committed their lives and careers in academia, public policy, politics, and the law to advancing and defending an American heritage of freedom that has improved the lives of millions and has the potential to help billions. They are champions of the freedom movement, a decades-long effort to restore the tenants of classical liberalism, check the power of government over individuals, and grow prosperity through sound economic principles.

Their efforts are inspired by the time they spent studying under a long line of faculty members who didn’t shy away from exposing their students to the big ideas and leading them to an understanding of how the world works, building on an intellectual tradition that dates back to Socrates.

Paul Kengor, professor of political science, is a student of the freedom movement and one of its leading advocates on campus today. He says the College has a unique understanding of “an ongoing historic march of freedom that never really ends” and, thanks to students of caliber and character, an impact far beyond campus.

“The hope of myself and many of us here is that we can foster that and nurture that while they’re here and then send them out in the world to make for a better country, culture, and world. And I think that’s happening,” he said.

In the College’s early years, the idea that free people and free markets are essential to a healthy and prosperous nation was as widely accepted as the general religious consensus that guided society of the era. As the 20th century unfolded, that consensus frayed in the face of financial disaster and war. Governments that got big in response to those threats got bigger and their influence and ultimately control over markets and people grew. The public’s acquiescence to this alarmed J. Howard Pew, the industrialist and philanthropist who chaired the College’s board of trustees for a record 40 years.

A 1900 graduate of the College, Pew was an evangelist for orthodox Christianity, American idealism and the free market. Pew backed causes he believed in, including political ones that stood against the creeping socialism of the post-war era. He was intimately involved in the selection of College personnel, and in 1956 he brought a German economics professor to Grove City College who would play a profound role in the freedom movement.

Hans Sennholz was a student of famed economist Ludwig von Mises and a leading proponent of the Austrian school, a market based, scientific approach to the study of commerce and society that had its roots in the 19th century and was considered unorthodox as the interventionist, Keynesian school gained supremacy in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. He was a tough professor, demanded much from his students, and left an impression on many during his five decades at the College.

“There are people sprinkled throughout the free market and libertarian worlds who have that Grove City-Sennholz connection,” Scott Bullock ’88, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that defends individuals from government overreach. “It’s like a fraternity, and we all swap Sennholz stories when we see each other. He was an inspiring teacher and also quite the character.”

Sennholz’s influence on the freedom movement was oversized for someone who taught at a small college in Western Pennsylvania, according to former student and acclaimed Austrian economist Peter Boetkke ’83. Long before Boetkke encountered Sennholz, the professor’s writings were widely read by in academic and political circles – Ronald Reagan was a fan – and he was “a character discussed.”

Boetkke is now a professor of economics and philosophy at George Mason University who studies capitalism, directs research and leads the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the university’s noted Mercatus Center. He said Sennholz changed his life and gave him a “passion for the study of the history of economic ideas and the importance of the science of economics to understanding how the world works.”

Boetkke’s efforts on that front have produced a volumes of research and economics texts that have helped others gain a similar understanding. Through his teaching and writing he’s spread the ideas of the freedom movement to thousands, many of whom have followed his path into academia and influenced their students at schools like Denison, Dickinson, Hillsdale, Kenyon, King's College, Ursinus College, and even Grove City College, with Caleb Fuller ’13 , now an assistant professor of economics.

Sennholz wasn’t the only faculty member committed to free markets and classical liberalism at Grove City College, but he stands as the prototype. Many others would work with him and follow in his footsteps.

Their efforts were augmented from the 1960s on by a growing network of free market, conservative and libertarian organizations who brought speakers to campus, provided internships for students and jobs for graduates. A pair of Sennholz’s first generation of students were among the key players in the freedom movement’s development: Richard Larry ’60, a former College trustee who, as president of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, helped fund the network, and Walter Grinder ’67, an academic whose work with Institute for Humane Studies is near legendary.

They and later alums like Larry Reed ’75, who did groundbreaking work with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and is now with the Foundation for Economic Education, and Alejandro Chafuen ’83, longtime leader of the Atlas Network and currently a managing director  of the Acton Institute, would establish think tanks and build the political and intellectual infrastructure that made it possible to provide voters and policy makers the means to restore the nation’s compromised principles, which by the 1970s had produced malaise, inflation, and stagnation. Reagan’s 1980 election put free market, limited government principles firmly in the mainstream. Over the next four decades, the freedom movement would enjoy an energy and currency as the economic ideas and legal principles underpinning it are now, in many ways, establishment thinking.

And it’s working. The world has seen a “historically unprecedented wave of market freedom” that’s resulted in a demonstrable increase in the number of free or democratic nations since the 1970s, Kengor said. “There are still all sorts of disagreements among people, some of who are conservative, some who are libertarian, some are liberals, some are socialists and some are democratic socialists, but there is now a general sense or appreciation of the value of market freedom,” he said.

Grove City College’s commitment to the “faith and freedom foundations” of America led to the creation in 2005 of the Center for Vision & Values, a think tank that provides an outlet for faculty members and others to advance the ideas of the freedom movement and a training ground for the next generation.

Jarrett Skorup ’09, director of Marketing and Communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, was a student fellow with Vision & Values. The College was critical in getting him interested in economics and sound public policy and the faculty’s focus on the long-term impact of ideas guides his work for the state-based, free market think tank.

As well as influencing policy and legislation in areas like occupational licensure and criminal justice reform, he helps shape public opinion with his writing, which has been published in many of the nation’s largest newspapers. His job is to make policy research understandable to everyday people, who are ultimately impacted hardest by bad or good policy. “A key thing I first learned at Grove City is that while the wealthy certainly benefit from capitalism, it is the poor who gain the most in a free-market system. That is who has trouble navigating a large onerous government, with bureaucratic rules and the lack of a good court system,” he said.

Rachel Bovard ’06, another Vision & Values alum, has had an impact inside and outside of government. Currently senior director of policy for the Conservative Partnership, Bovard spent a decade as a staffer in the House and Senate before moving on to her current position.

“In a broad sense, much of the work I did on Capitol Hill was focused on protecting individual liberty from the heavy hand of government,” she said, particularly in the regulatory sector. Working for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Bovard oversaw cases that “really crystalize the tension between individual liberty and federal power.”

At the Conservative Partnership, Bovard is “building the conservative bench” by training young Congressional staffers to draft and advance legislation effectively. She’s also an up and coming spokeswoman for the freedom movement in the mainstream media.

“I now engage in a lot of punditry both in op-eds and television,” she said. “Much of what I try to do is to articulate the conservative argument — whether in policy or strategy — in areas where it would not normally be heard.”

Bovard says the lessons she learned at Grove City College have stuck with her: “The curriculum in the history and political science departments pushed me to contemplate the big questions, which continue to frame how I approach policy and political questions today.”

Kengor, who counts Skorup, Bovard, and too many others to name as former students, is gratified the work they are doing and satisfied that Grove City College is fulfilling its historic duty.

“Ronald Reagan said ‘freedom is always a generation away from extinction,’ and it is the duty of every generation to help preserve freedom. We are helping to raise an impressive next generation of students in the freedom movement. They are such a wonderful testimony to the College and what we’re doing,” he said.

 

 

'Freedom's College' keeps the Founders' flame

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