The Magazine

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."