Grove City College v. Bell (1984): Conservative Education on Trial, and the Legacy of J. Howard Pew

Devan Lindey, Purdue University


Between 1977 and 1984, Grove City College engaged in a legal dispute with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as to whether the college needed to sign federally mandated Title IX compliance forms for its students to receive federal funding. This project uses the culmination of the legal dispute, the Supreme Court case Grove City College v. Bell (1984) to engage with discussions about philanthropy’s role in shaping education, the political effects of that education, the politicization of interpretations of Supreme Court decisions, and the continued role of education in shaping a conservative intellectual elite. Throughout much of the twentieth century, oil magnate and conservative businessman J. Howard Pew funded Grove City College’s building projects and gave countless speeches at the college. By relying on his money, Pew steered the private college’s curriculum and student life to embrace Judeo-Christian norms, cultural conservatism, and libertarian economics. These values shaped the conservative response to federal regulations in the form of Title IX as Grove City College sought to defend those values. This sociolegal history of the case reveals the intellectual roots of Grove City College’s retaliation. Furthermore, this project bridges legal and political history as I show that Supreme Court decisions were shaped by activists and politicians. We must look beyond case law. The project connects grassroots activism and political decisions as both meted out the future of conservatism in the public square. By conflating popularity with democracy, Ronald Reagan and his Department of Justice tried to appease all sides in the legal conflict as he made overtures to the antifeminist New Right. This project then touches on the battle over minority rule and majoritarian democracy as Reagan was at odds with the New Right as he subscribed to the latter. My work on Grove City College v. Bell (1984) then pushes our discussion of political history beyond a red and blue dichotomy as Democrats and moderate Republicans formed a bipartisan coalition to legislatively overturn the Supreme Court’s decision. Grove City College’s conservative think tank acts as a new endeavor to inform the public square as to the values of conservatism. Long since passed away, Pew’s values live on in the Institute for Faith and Freedom. By observing the branding of the organization and its connection to the college’s history, this work shows the fluidity and adaptability of conservatism as it occurs on campus and how it intertwines with national conversations today with which conservatism is concerned.




Pitts, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Law|Education history|American history|Political science

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