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Sex, Lies, and Conservatism

Scandal at Hillsdale College

Nov 22, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 10 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Around lunchtime on October 17, George Roche IV returned from an errand to find that his wife of 21 years, Lissa, had shot herself to death behind their home on the campus of Hillsdale College. Both Roches had attended Hillsdale, a small liberal-arts college 100 miles west of Detroit, and both worked there, he as a physical trainer in the athletic department, she as an editor at various Hillsdale publications. Their son was a junior at Hillsdale. George's father, George Roche III, was Hillsdale's longtime president. But there was no memorial service for Lissa Roche on the Hillsdale campus. After a private ceremony, her body was cremated. Within days, word spread that President Roche had been having an affair with his daughter-in-law.

Plausible rumors about Roche's womanizing had circulated for years at Hillsdale, but this one stuck. Colleagues remembered that the two traveled together frequently. Others recalled that at a recent wedding reception for Roche and his second wife (he had divorced his first wife in April after 44 years of marriage), Lissa Roche got drunk and made a number of bitter and cryptic remarks about the college president. Then, while being questioned by the police, Roche admitted that his daughter-in-law had visited him hours before she died and had threatened to commit suicide. Most damning of all, Roche's son, George IV (known as "I. V."), told a number of professors and administrators at Hillsdale that he believed his father had been sleeping with his wife.

It turns out he had reason to believe it. According to I. V. Roche, in an account he gave to John J. Miller of National Review, he and Lissa went to the hospital to visit President Roche (who was being treated there for diabetes) on the morning of the suicide. While at the hospital, Lissa confessed that she and President Roche had been having a sexual relationship since 1980. Stunned, I. V. asked his father if it was true. Roche, I. V. told Miller, "didn't say a word. I could tell by looking at him that she was telling the truth. I saw the look in his eyes. He was caught."

Two weeks after Lissa Roche's suicide, the board placed George Roche "on leave." Roche, who was on his honeymoon in Hawaii, returned to Hillsdale. Last Wednesday, the college announced that George Roche would be leaving his job after 28 years as president of Hillsdale. Within hours Roche's office was dark, its contents in boxes. Roche said he planned to leave Hillsdale by the end of the week. He didn't say where he was going.

Hillsdale College is perhaps the premier conservative college in the country -- though "conservative colleges" isn't really the most competitive category one can imagine. Which is, of course, the point: With higher learning in America increasingly in thrall to multiculturalism and the other enthusiasms of leftist orthodoxy, Hillsdale promotes itself as self-consciously traditional -- "a trustee," as its mission statement proclaims, "of modern man's intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law."

Hillsdale was founded by progressive Baptists in 1844, and from the beginning admitted students regardless of sex or race. Women were enrolled on a par with men, freed slaves with whites. Over the following century it dropped its sectarian affiliation and by the late 1960s had fallen on hard times -- nearly bankrupt, its endowment down to $ 4 million, faculty hiring at a standstill, and the buildings in disastrous repair. In desperation the board of trustees launched a search for a new president, and in 1971 settled on George Roche.

Roche was 35, director of seminars for a libertarian think tank in New York called the Foundation for Economic Education, and a former history professor at the Colorado School of Mines. It quickly became apparent that his great gift, like that of all successful college presidents, was in generating publicity and raising funds. By the time of his hiring, the American conservative movement was entering its early adulthood, and Roche allied the school with it in an ingenious way. In so doing he made of himself a hero to the movement, and transformed his school, in the unironic words of a former student, into a "conservative academic paradise."

In the mid-1970s, there were still several American colleges, Hillsdale among them, that refused to accept federal funding. They did so for a variety of reasons and with generally baleful effects. At Hillsdale the reasons were ideological -- a determination to resist the overweening power of the state. Even so, many Hillsdale students received federal student aid. According to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, this made the school itself subject to federal mandates. When HEW began peppering the college for data about the student body's racial, ethnic, and sexual make-up, Roche and Hillsdale resisted.

It was Roche's insight that this resistance could be turned into a public relations asset, particularly attractive to the growing base of donors to conservative causes. The survival of Hillsdale became a conservative crusade, the college a right-wing David standing up to the federal Goliath.

"The other schools that didn't take federal money, they didn't tout it," says Robert Russell, a longtime fund-raising consultant to Hillsdale. "George's idea was that not taking the money ought to be a cause. It ought to stand on its own as an appeal. And it attracted a lot of attention, a lot of students, a lot of donors."

After the Supreme Court's 1984 Grove City decision, which generally upheld the government's position regarding student aid, Hillsdale barred its students from receiving any federal aid at all. In place of federal assistance, the school substituted its own, privately raised money. Today more than 80 percent of the students receive financial aid -- but from Hillsdale, not the feds. For conservatives, this has made the Hillsdale cause all the more compelling.

Roche developed several venues for broadcasting Hillsdale's message of "academic independence" and "freedom from government control." The vehicle for much of the fund-raising was Imprimis, a monthly newsletter mailed free to conservatives around the country. Of all conservative publications, it is the most widely circulated, with a subscription base of more than 900,000. Hillsdale painstakingly assembled this list of subscribers over 26 years and guards it jealously, declining to rent it to other conservative nonprofits that would like to raid it for donors.

Each issue of Imprimis comes with a plea for funds and, crucially, a return envelope. A large portion of the college's donations, according to fund-raisers, arrive this way. For content, Imprimis offers a brief essay from a conservative stalwart, usually based on talks given at one of the many seminars Hillsdale hosts, both on campus and off. Three times a year, Hillsdale takes its show on the road, in seminars produced under the auspices of its subsidiary, another Roche creation called the Shavano Institute. Imprimis invites its regional subscribers to attend the seminars, and audiences often approach 1,000, to hear such speakers as William F. Buckley, Colin Powell, Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Margaret Thatcher -- every star in the conservative constellation has at one time or another appeared at a Shavano seminar. The next one, in January, will feature Bill Bennett; next May, Ken Starr will appear at a Shavano event in Dallas.

Speakers like this don't come cheap. "George had the vision to see that to raise money, you've got to spend money," says Ron Trowbridge, Hillsdale's vice president and its director of external affairs. Through Imprimis and Shavano, Trowbridge says, "George knew you could build up a reputation, you could get students, and you could raise money."

The success of this fund-raising apparatus is astounding. Between 1971, when he became Hillsdale president, and the end of October 1999, Roche raised almost $ 325 million dollars. The figure comes from Trowbridge, who adds, "If you wanted to adjust for inflation, the amount becomes almost astronomical." Today Hillsdale's endowment stands at $ 183 million. Roche's success is evident on campus, where the physical plant has been expanded by 50 percent, while the student body has been kept constant at 1,200. The student-faculty ratio is 11 to 1; the SAT scores of incoming freshmen have steadily increased, and so, by most accounts, has the quality of the faculty. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Hillsdale number one among midwestern liberal-arts colleges.

"It's an American story," says Russell, the fund-raising consultant, "a David and Goliath story, a magical story."

But in the wake of a scandal as lurid as the one now roiling Hillsdale, magic becomes harder to sustain. Last Thursday, Hillsdale held a "special convocation" designed to "clarify the college's core values." Students and faculty (the latter in a full, robed academic procession led by a lone bagpiper dressed in a kilt) filed into the George Roche Health Education and Sports Complex and took their places in folding chairs on the basketball court. A string quartet played chamber music. The college choir sang hymns. After an opening prayer, the chairman of the board of trustees, Donald Mossey, class of '51, addressed the school. "This is an important time for Hillsdale," Mossey began, a time when "history is being made." Indeed, Mossey explained, it is at this time in history that "we can pledge ourselves to defend Hillsdale College. And we can do it with God's blessing."

Subsequent speakers agreed. "Transitions can be frightening times," observed dean of the faculty James Stephens, before explaining why Hillsdale is such a terrific place. Being at Hillsdale, enthused senior class president Beau Verlin, "is almost like going to school in the '50s. And you know what? There's no place I'd rather be." Verlin went on to congratulate Hillsdale on its fight "against moral relativism," and then read an extended passage from Martin Luther King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

It was inspiring. And totally confusing. Apart from a few references to "events of the last few weeks," no one mentioned the reason for the convocation. If you'd arrived on campus from Mars -- or even from Washington -- and had somehow missed the local news and the front pages of the region's major newspapers, you would have had no idea that the president of Hillsdale had just been forced from office in the wake of a suicide-sex scandal. Inside the Roche Sports Complex all was weirdly calm. Mossey referred to the abrupt and spectacular destruction of Roche's reputation and career as "Dr. Roche's request for an early retirement." Acting president Robert Blackstock -- the new leader of Hillsdale's war on moral relativism -- all but dared those present to pass judgment on Roche's behavior. "We are all," Blackstock said, "all of us, left fallen and short of the glory of God."

And that was it. Nobody stood up and shouted, "But what about the daughter-in-law?" Nobody even snickered. The students simply sang a not-very-enthusiastic rendition of the alma mater ("Noble pride in our Hillsdale's name endures") and filed out.

Back in his campus office after the convocation, Trow-bridge, Hillsdale's vice president, describes the assembly as the final step in a long process of "closure." Trowbridge is tall, white haired, and handsome in an aging leading man sort of way. (He can look and sound spookily like Lloyd Bridges in Airplane!) It is fortuitous that he happens to be the college's chief flack, for he is also Hillsdale's resident expert on what he calls "the Roche case."

"I know more about this than anyone," Trowbridge says, and he may. Trowbridge has worked at Hillsdale on and off since 1978. He is close to almost every member of the Roche family. For 13 years he worked with Lissa Roche, who had an office next door. Trowbridge says he knew Lissa Roche was having problems in her marriage (in September, "she ran away for one day to California, then came back") but had no idea she was seriously depressed. "I would never have thought in a million years that she would put a bullet into her head," he says. "That was really a surprise for me."

Shortly after Lissa Roche's death, Trowbridge began to hear rumors about the dead woman's personal life. On October 27, after conversations with her husband and friends, he took what he had learned to the board of trustees, which promptly suspended the president. Trowbridge says he learned a great deal in the course of investigating the Roche matter. But he is not going to talk about any of it. In fact, he won't even discuss why he won't discuss it. Trowbridge does say that Hillsdale reached some sort of legal agreement with the departing president, one that allows Roche to keep his (presumably generous) retirement benefits. But that's it. "The reason they did it will never come out. It will never be discussed. What we had to do was work out what was legally satisfactory to both sides. But I would still not tell you -- ever -- why it was."

Why not? Simple, says Trowbridge: the Constitution. "What people are wanting us to do," he explains, "is to deny George his constitutional right to privacy. You can get sued for that." The walls of his office are covered with photographs of conservative heroes, including Ronald Reagan and Warren Burger, both of whom he once worked for. Trowbridge has just finished explaining how, over the years, Hillsdale has been willing to stand up for conservative principles in the face of elite opposition, even Justice Department lawsuits. Now he's fixated on a constitutional "right to privacy," something most conservatives don't even believe exists. What's going on? Well, Trowbridge says, "that's what the attorneys are telling us."

Apparently, the attorneys are also telling Hillsdale administrators not to contradict Roche's last public statement, in which the former president implied that he had decided to retire simply because he had gotten too old ("nearly 65 years of age") to run a college. In light of the problems Roche has caused for Hillsdale lately, this kind of make-believe comes off as stunning. But the school seems determined to play along. "That's the truth as he understands it," Trowbridge says, sounding a bit like an Eastern mystic. "I think it's what he wants to say, and if that's what he wants to say, it's his business. I don't have any problem with it."

Trowbridge can say things like this because he still maintains that "no one will ever know" what really happened between President Roche and his daughter-in-law. But what about George Roche IV? Doesn't his account pretty much settle the matter? Why, after all, would he make up a story like that? Trowbridge doesn't answer the question directly, but he makes the point -- ever so subtly -- that there are a few things reporters from out of town might not know about Hillsdale. Take old I. V. Roche. Nice guy but, well, he may be a little odd. Or as Trowbridge puts it: "I think what he always wanted to do with his life was to go back to Colorado and live in the woods. He likes to be in the woods. He likes to camp. He likes to build fires outside." These days, Trowbridge says, you might see old I. V. on campus once in a while. "He kind of walks around maybe a little bit not focused." And, Trowbridge adds, he's on pills. The kind they give to depressed people. The kind -- Trowbridge doesn't actually say this, but you get the point -- that might make a man imagine that his father had been sleeping with his wife.

Trowbridge is a former professor of English and by all accounts a smart, decent person who is well-liked at Hillsdale. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would say the things he just did. Yet at some point every spinner begins to believe the spin. For Trowbridge, the point comes at the end of the conversation, when he suggests that, in fact, perhaps the Events of the Last Few Weeks really didn't have anything to do with Roche's leaving. Perhaps it was his medical problems that caused Roche to retire. You see, Trowbridge says, "George had really severe diabetes and it was really beginning to take its toll and you could see it. When he was giving speeches lately you could see long pauses. And the pauses, I'm told by a physician, were a diabetic situation. So it was a mutual agreement."

Maybe that's what Trowbridge will tell Hillsdale's donors and alumni when he writes them to explain why the college has a new president. Or maybe that's what readers of Imprimis will be told when they ask why Lissa Roche is no longer the managing editor. Trowbridge seems confident he'll be able to explain what has happened at Hillsdale in a way people can understand.

Of course some people won't even need an explanation. Among the many papers piled on Trowbridge's desk (interview request from Time and 20/20, page proofs from the new Imprimis) are phone messages from prominent conservatives who have called to offer their support. Trowbridge is sure there will be others. "Quayle will call us," he says. "Steve Forbes will help us."

And again, he may be right. The network of celebrity conservatives on which Hillsdale can now draw in its time of need is very large, thanks to Roche. Fit and handsome as a soap opera star, he became a conservative celebrity himself. "He has an extremely charismatic personality," says Lee Edwards, a historian of the conservative movement who sent one of his children to Hillsdale. "He's a very good speaker, a good writer. He's able to take complicated ideas and transmit them in an easily digestible way."

Roche is not only a creator but also a creature of the conservative counterculture. "The Long March through the Institutions" was a tactic, and a highly successful one, of the left only. Conservatives, by contrast, were content to create a parallel universe with its own magazines, publishing house, newspaper, television network -- and of course, in Hillsdale, its own college -- all of them untainted by the "dominant liberal culture." In this incestuous world Roche was a star. For four years in the Reagan administration he served as head of the National Council on Educational Research; then, as many conservatives did in those days, he quit with the recommendation that his agency be abolished. He wrote 14 books, several of them self-published. Others were put out by Regnery Publishing, reviewed in the Washington Times, and then boomed as "book of the year" by Insight magazine, a Times subsidiary. But the dominant culture was for the most part happy to ignore him.

That cloistered atmosphere carried over onto the Hillsdale campus, and it is no surprise that over the past 28 years many students and faculty have chafed at it. His fund-raising forced Roche to travel constantly -- "He was like a ghostly figure," one student said last week -- but he impressed his vision on the school absolutely. Several discontented members of the "Hillsdale family" -- few of whom wish to be identified -- use the phrase "cult of personality" to describe Hillsdale in the Roche era. Flip through back issues of the college yearbook, and it often seems that there is a George Roche photo on every page.

"George Roche was a cult leader masquerading as a college president," says Thomas Payne, who was an associate professor of political science at Hillsdale from 1977 to 1987. Discontented faculty members ventilated their frustration by telling the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996 that Hillsdale resembled a "Gestapo police state." Another compared it to "a Stalinist kind of environment." Resentment of Roche's highhanded administrative style wasn't helped by his salary. Chronicle reported that Roche, as of 1994, was the fifth highest paid president of an American college, with a total compensation package of $ 448,000.

Even so, Roche inspired devotion among administrators, faculty, and students, some of whom actively protected him. According to two current Hillsdale employees, evidence of Roche's ongoing extramarital affairs had been placed before members of the board of trustees and of the administration over the past 10 years. "It was always dismissed as rumor, even by people who knew it to be true," said one. "It was just too horrible to act on."

Seen in this context, the convocation held last Thursday might be considered a "modified limited hangout." Two days before, a number of student leaders -- editors of the paper, heads of various campus organizations -- were summoned to a meeting with Hillsdale's chaplain and two of the college's deans. The purpose of the gathering was to talk about current events at Hillsdale. "There will be no discussion of President Roche," the group was informed moments after sitting down.

This is the sort of thing that on an ordinary campus would spark a sit-in, maybe an effigy burning. At Hillsdale, it provoked only tepid complaints, even from the local guardians of free speech.

A few hours after the convocation, half a dozen or so students sit in the offices of the Collegian, Hillsdale's newspaper, talking about the Roche Affair. All have just returned from class. None has yet received a straight answer from the college about Roche. "I haven't gotten explanations," says Teresa Masterson, a junior who writes for the paper. "I've gotten pep talks." Me too, nod the others. The words hang in the air. Masterson pipes up again, this time sounding apologetic. "They don't have to tell us. We don't have a right to know. We already know what we need to know." Again, the others nod. More details, Masterson says, would just be fodder for "human curiosity." The way she says it, "human curiosity" sounds about as appealing as "human waste."

"We want to project openness," Trowbridge said, shortly after news of the scandal became public. Then a memo went out to college employees instructing them not to talk to the press, and soon after, Trowbridge announced that officials would never again entertain discussion of the matter. Will members of the extended Hillsdale family -- particularly the donors and alumni upon whom it depends for funding -- rest content with a similar lack of curiosity? If so, Hillsdale risks being mocked by Roche's own words from his resignation statement. "Together we have built a beautiful dream," he wrote. "We have proved that integrity, values, and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world."