Sex, Lies, and Hillsdale
How the conservative college is dealing with the aftermath of a scandal.
Nov 29, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 11 • By TUCKER CARLSON
BY THE FIRST WEEK of November it had become clear to the people who run Hillsdale College that the school's president, George Roche III, would have to step down. Roche's daughter-in-law, Lissa Roche, had recently shot herself to death on campus. Rumors that she and Roche had been having an affair were about to make the papers. To mitigate the impending public relations disaster, Hillsdale's board of trustees asked two prominent conservatives -- William F. Buckley Jr. of National Review and former education secretary William Bennett -- to serve on a search committee charged with finding Roche's replacement. Hours before Roche's resignation, Bennett received a call from Hillsdale's director of external affairs, Ronald Trowbridge. Are the rumors about Roche true? Bennett asked. No doubt in my mind, Trowbridge replied. Satisfied that the college was handling the scandal in a straightforward manner, Bennett agreed to lend his name to Hillsdale's search for a new president.
Roche left Hillsdale on November 10. Last Monday, less than a week later, Trowbridge and Bennett spoke again. Bennett had by this time learned more about Roche's relationship with his daughter-in-law and had heard credible allegations about other women, including a student at Hillsdale. He was disturbed by the college's clumsy attempts to cover all this up. Bennett asked Trowbridge what was going on. Well, Trowbridge said, it turns out that reports of President Roche's affair with Lissa Roche are in all likelihood false, just malicious rumors. Huh? said Bennett. What about our last conversation, the one where you said Roche was guilty? Trowbridge didn't respond directly. Instead, he made reference to "the number of lies" Lissa Roche had told him over the years, implying that she had been pathologically dishonest, an untrustworthy nut case who imagined a two decade-long sexual relationship with her son's grandfather.
Bennett was appalled. The following day he resigned as co-chairman of the search committee. "If the college believes that George Roche III is innocent," Bennett wrote in a statement, "then it has an obligation to find out the truth as a condition of clearing his name." In interviews with reporters, Bennett raised the obvious question: If there is a possibility that Roche was falsely accused, why did the board of trustees force him to retire from his job of 28 years and leave the campus? If there were any doubt of his guilt, wouldn't that be grossly unfair?
In other words, there are only two options: Either George Roche III did something terrible, or Hillsdale's trustees did. Yet Hillsdale's administration continued to insist that all sides behaved honorably. Last week, the college sent its contributors a letter announcing Roche's departure. Signed by board chairman Donald Mossey, the reassuring letter went on for two full pages without mentioning the scandal, or even giving a reason for Roche's retirement. "George leaves Hillsdale with a record of distinguished achievement," Mossey wrote.
Not everyone was convinced. Calls poured in to the college from alumni and donors wondering what was going on. One of them came from Russell Fuhrman, a Hillsdale donor from Dubuque, Iowa. Last week Fuhrman called Ron Trowbridge and spoke to him at length about the Roche scandal. "Ron was bitter," Fuhrman recalls, and for good reason. As Trowbridge explained to Fuhrman, Roche -- contrary to widespread and "libelous" rumors -- actually retired from Hillsdale for health reasons. After 28 years of tireless work on behalf of the college, Trowbridge implied, Roche's body finally gave out. George Roche: He gave his health for Hillsdale.
At about the same time Trowbridge was trying (unsuccessfully) to spin Russell Fuhrman, the Hillsdale PR department was busy faxing out a new statement on the Roche affair. Written by Trowbridge, it may have been the most inept attempt at damage control ever produced by an academic institution. "The matter is more complex than the world realizes," he wrote, "and circumstantial evidence, that perhaps I alone know firsthand, leads in contrary directions on the charge of adultery." Trowbridge saved the weirdest for last. "I have heard rumors of Lissa's abortion and allegations of George's affairs with students," he revealed. "I have never had one scintilla of evidence that these rumors are true. It is to me entirely conceivable that George Roche is a condemned innocent man."