The Magazine

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
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I alone know firsthand? Lissa's abortion? Condemned innocent man? The statement's teasing references and cryptic language all but dared reporters to dig deeper. (Though several people who know Trowbridge say he seems to have no special information that would indicate Roche is innocent.) Its melodramatic outrage -- by the end Trowbridge was all but comparing Roche to Alfred Dreyfus -- couldn't have been reassuring to Hillsdale's supporters.

And to a much greater degree than most colleges, Hillsdale needs its supporters. The school accepts no federal funds, and until last month relied entirely on contributions ginned up by George Roche III. At least $ 50 million of Hillsdale's endowment is held in trusts established by living donors. Hillsdale manages the funds, with the expectation that it will receive full control of them when the donors die. That is, unless a sex/suicide scandal were to spook contributors into yanking their money. If you ran Hillsdale, you'd be worried about the possibility.

The school has received some expressions of support. Last week, William Buckley wrote a signed editorial in National Review urging readers not to condemn Hillsdale or its former president. Roche, Buckley wrote, "is a practicing Christian, and like his brothers in the faith he is a sinner; perhaps, even, he has sinned here. But he gave his word as a Christian that he is innocent of this particular wrongdoing, and fellow Christians should accept the formal implications of his pleading." Hillsdale triumphantly faxed the editorial to news outlets. Yet even Buckley is unwilling to say whether he believes Roche slept with his daughter-in-law. "I want to dodge that question," Buckley replies when asked. "It is hereby dodged." ("Such questions excite the tabloid appetites," he explained the following day in a column. "Giving them free expression can bring on moral hangovers.")

The best news out of Hillsdale in weeks is that the long, strange public relations career of Ron Trowbridge may be coming to an end. Trowbridge has become the William Ginsburg of the Roche affair, and the college's acting president, Robert Blackstock, (among many others) is said to be unhappy with his performance. By the end of last week, rumors were circulating at Hillsdale that Ron Trowbridge was about to quit or be fired. He was still in his office on Friday, but his duties, or some of them, seemed to have been taken over by others. The college had brought on a new spokesman -- Frank Maisano, a Hillsdale graduate and former Republican Hill staffer who works at a public relations firm in Washington -- capable of giving crisp, logical answers to basic questions. And on November 18, the trustees announced their plan to find a law firm "to guide Hillsdale College in an investigation of reported incidents that have led to the retirement of former President George C. Roche, III."

"Reported incidents"? A euphemism, yes. But a lot better than "health concerns," and perhaps even a first step back to respectability.