Hillsdale History: Ransom Dunn, The Grand Old Man of Hillsdale

Written by John Taylor

Students here agree: our professors are masters of their craft. Every day, they strive passionately for the educational and personal development of their students, and, for that, we owe them something dear. But mastery and dedication are nothing new to the college. Indeed, excellence has run through the veins of Hillsdale professors from the start.

Ransom Dunn, a professor and preacher, shaped the early history of the college over the course of a half-century. He helped the young, fledgling institution grow into a prominent academic establishment.

Hillsdale College owes much of its early development to Dunn’s work. In 1852, the abolitionist pastor and academic theologian moved from Vermont to Michigan to teach moral philosophy. He would later spend two full years travelling– by carriage and horseback — some six thousand miles across the Midwestern Plains and Western Frontier to raise money for the college’s early mission. He returned with over ten thousand dollars– an amount that would prove vitally important to the college’s early existence and development.

Nevertheless, for Dunn, a college’s money remained second in importance to its educational worth. As he put it, “The real value of colleges and universities is not to be estimated by the magnitude of buildings or endowments, but by the increase of mental power and moral force.”

Ransom Dunn taught at Hillsdale for four decades, became a trustee of the college in 1855, and served as its interim president before he retired in 1898. Alongside this work, Dunn authored two distinguished books on Christian theology. Five of his six children and nine of his grandchildren attended Hillsdale. Two of his sons fought for the Union in the Civil War.

In 1900, the college honored the eighty-two year old Dunn at its annual Commencement ceremony. The audience gave him a standing ovation for his life and time at Hillsdale, rallying in gratitude and calling him out as Hillsdale’s “Grand Old Man.” He passed away later that year.

Hillsdale College continues to honor the memory of Professor Dunn. His grave lies in the cemetery north of campus, where students can visit and remember his contributions to the present life of the college. As Hillsdale’s late professor and historian Arlan K. Gilbert wrote, “his legacy still animates this sturdy liberal arts college that proudly defies the forces of progressivism, relativism, and governmental regulation of higher education.”

Rest in peace, professor.

John Taylor is a senior Hillsdale College student from Portland, Oregon, pursuing majors in both History and Philosophy and a minor in Economics. He is member of both the History and Philosophy honorary societies.