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."

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.


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