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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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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."