The Magazine

Sex, Lies, and Conservatism

Scandal at Hillsdale College

Nov 22, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 10 • By TUCKER CARLSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But in the wake of a scandal as lurid as the one now roiling Hillsdale, magic becomes harder to sustain. Last Thursday, Hillsdale held a "special convocation" designed to "clarify the college's core values." Students and faculty (the latter in a full, robed academic procession led by a lone bagpiper dressed in a kilt) filed into the George Roche Health Education and Sports Complex and took their places in folding chairs on the basketball court. A string quartet played chamber music. The college choir sang hymns. After an opening prayer, the chairman of the board of trustees, Donald Mossey, class of '51, addressed the school. "This is an important time for Hillsdale," Mossey began, a time when "history is being made." Indeed, Mossey explained, it is at this time in history that "we can pledge ourselves to defend Hillsdale College. And we can do it with God's blessing."

Subsequent speakers agreed. "Transitions can be frightening times," observed dean of the faculty James Stephens, before explaining why Hillsdale is such a terrific place. Being at Hillsdale, enthused senior class president Beau Verlin, "is almost like going to school in the '50s. And you know what? There's no place I'd rather be." Verlin went on to congratulate Hillsdale on its fight "against moral relativism," and then read an extended passage from Martin Luther King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

It was inspiring. And totally confusing. Apart from a few references to "events of the last few weeks," no one mentioned the reason for the convocation. If you'd arrived on campus from Mars -- or even from Washington -- and had somehow missed the local news and the front pages of the region's major newspapers, you would have had no idea that the president of Hillsdale had just been forced from office in the wake of a suicide-sex scandal. Inside the Roche Sports Complex all was weirdly calm. Mossey referred to the abrupt and spectacular destruction of Roche's reputation and career as "Dr. Roche's request for an early retirement." Acting president Robert Blackstock -- the new leader of Hillsdale's war on moral relativism -- all but dared those present to pass judgment on Roche's behavior. "We are all," Blackstock said, "all of us, left fallen and short of the glory of God."

And that was it. Nobody stood up and shouted, "But what about the daughter-in-law?" Nobody even snickered. The students simply sang a not-very-enthusiastic rendition of the alma mater ("Noble pride in our Hillsdale's name endures") and filed out.

Back in his campus office after the convocation, Trow-bridge, Hillsdale's vice president, describes the assembly as the final step in a long process of "closure." Trowbridge is tall, white haired, and handsome in an aging leading man sort of way. (He can look and sound spookily like Lloyd Bridges in Airplane!) It is fortuitous that he happens to be the college's chief flack, for he is also Hillsdale's resident expert on what he calls "the Roche case."

"I know more about this than anyone," Trowbridge says, and he may. Trowbridge has worked at Hillsdale on and off since 1978. He is close to almost every member of the Roche family. For 13 years he worked with Lissa Roche, who had an office next door. Trowbridge says he knew Lissa Roche was having problems in her marriage (in September, "she ran away for one day to California, then came back") but had no idea she was seriously depressed. "I would never have thought in a million years that she would put a bullet into her head," he says. "That was really a surprise for me."

Shortly after Lissa Roche's death, Trowbridge began to hear rumors about the dead woman's personal life. On October 27, after conversations with her husband and friends, he took what he had learned to the board of trustees, which promptly suspended the president. Trowbridge says he learned a great deal in the course of investigating the Roche matter. But he is not going to talk about any of it. In fact, he won't even discuss why he won't discuss it. Trowbridge does say that Hillsdale reached some sort of legal agreement with the departing president, one that allows Roche to keep his (presumably generous) retirement benefits. But that's it. "The reason they did it will never come out. It will never be discussed. What we had to do was work out what was legally satisfactory to both sides. But I would still not tell you -- ever -- why it was."

Why not? Simple, says Trowbridge: the Constitution. "What people are wanting us to do," he explains, "is to deny George his constitutional right to privacy. You can get sued for that." The walls of his office are covered with photographs of conservative heroes, including Ronald Reagan and Warren Burger, both of whom he once worked for. Trowbridge has just finished explaining how, over the years, Hillsdale has been willing to stand up for conservative principles in the face of elite opposition, even Justice Department lawsuits. Now he's fixated on a constitutional "right to privacy," something most conservatives don't even believe exists. What's going on? Well, Trowbridge says, "that's what the attorneys are telling us."

Apparently, the attorneys are also telling Hillsdale administrators not to contradict Roche's last public statement, in which the former president implied that he had decided to retire simply because he had gotten too old ("nearly 65 years of age") to run a college. In light of the problems Roche has caused for Hillsdale lately, this kind of make-believe comes off as stunning. But the school seems determined to play along. "That's the truth as he understands it," Trowbridge says, sounding a bit like an Eastern mystic. "I think it's what he wants to say, and if that's what he wants to say, it's his business. I don't have any problem with it."

Trowbridge can say things like this because he still maintains that "no one will ever know" what really happened between President Roche and his daughter-in-law. But what about George Roche IV? Doesn't his account pretty much settle the matter? Why, after all, would he make up a story like that? Trowbridge doesn't answer the question directly, but he makes the point -- ever so subtly -- that there are a few things reporters from out of town might not know about Hillsdale. Take old I. V. Roche. Nice guy but, well, he may be a little odd. Or as Trowbridge puts it: "I think what he always wanted to do with his life was to go back to Colorado and live in the woods. He likes to be in the woods. He likes to camp. He likes to build fires outside." These days, Trowbridge says, you might see old I. V. on campus once in a while. "He kind of walks around maybe a little bit not focused." And, Trowbridge adds, he's on pills. The kind they give to depressed people. The kind -- Trowbridge doesn't actually say this, but you get the point -- that might make a man imagine that his father had been sleeping with his wife.

Trowbridge is a former professor of English and by all accounts a smart, decent person who is well-liked at Hillsdale. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would say the things he just did. Yet at some point every spinner begins to believe the spin. For Trowbridge, the point comes at the end of the conversation, when he suggests that, in fact, perhaps the Events of the Last Few Weeks really didn't have anything to do with Roche's leaving. Perhaps it was his medical problems that caused Roche to retire. You see, Trowbridge says, "George had really severe diabetes and it was really beginning to take its toll and you could see it. When he was giving speeches lately you could see long pauses. And the pauses, I'm told by a physician, were a diabetic situation. So it was a mutual agreement."

Maybe that's what Trowbridge will tell Hillsdale's donors and alumni when he writes them to explain why the college has a new president. Or maybe that's what readers of Imprimis will be told when they ask why Lissa Roche is no longer the managing editor. Trowbridge seems confident he'll be able to explain what has happened at Hillsdale in a way people can understand.

Of course some people won't even need an explanation. Among the many papers piled on Trowbridge's desk (interview request from Time and 20/20, page proofs from the new Imprimis) are phone messages from prominent conservatives who have called to offer their support. Trowbridge is sure there will be others. "Quayle will call us," he says. "Steve Forbes will help us."

And again, he may be right. The network of celebrity conservatives on which Hillsdale can now draw in its time of need is very large, thanks to Roche. Fit and handsome as a soap opera star, he became a conservative celebrity himself. "He has an extremely charismatic personality," says Lee Edwards, a historian of the conservative movement who sent one of his children to Hillsdale. "He's a very good speaker, a good writer. He's able to take complicated ideas and transmit them in an easily digestible way."

Roche is not only a creator but also a creature of the conservative counterculture. "The Long March through the Institutions" was a tactic, and a highly successful one, of the left only. Conservatives, by contrast, were content to create a parallel universe with its own magazines, publishing house, newspaper, television network -- and of course, in Hillsdale, its own college -- all of them untainted by the "dominant liberal culture." In this incestuous world Roche was a star. For four years in the Reagan administration he served as head of the National Council on Educational Research; then, as many conservatives did in those days, he quit with the recommendation that his agency be abolished. He wrote 14 books, several of them self-published. Others were put out by Regnery Publishing, reviewed in the Washington Times, and then boomed as "book of the year" by Insight magazine, a Times subsidiary. But the dominant culture was for the most part happy to ignore him.

That cloistered atmosphere carried over onto the Hillsdale campus, and it is no surprise that over the past 28 years many students and faculty have chafed at it. His fund-raising forced Roche to travel constantly -- "He was like a ghostly figure," one student said last week -- but he impressed his vision on the school absolutely. Several discontented members of the "Hillsdale family" -- few of whom wish to be identified -- use the phrase "cult of personality" to describe Hillsdale in the Roche era. Flip through back issues of the college yearbook, and it often seems that there is a George Roche photo on every page.

"George Roche was a cult leader masquerading as a college president," says Thomas Payne, who was an associate professor of political science at Hillsdale from 1977 to 1987. Discontented faculty members ventilated their frustration by telling the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996 that Hillsdale resembled a "Gestapo police state." Another compared it to "a Stalinist kind of environment." Resentment of Roche's highhanded administrative style wasn't helped by his salary. Chronicle reported that Roche, as of 1994, was the fifth highest paid president of an American college, with a total compensation package of $ 448,000.

Even so, Roche inspired devotion among administrators, faculty, and students, some of whom actively protected him. According to two current Hillsdale employees, evidence of Roche's ongoing extramarital affairs had been placed before members of the board of trustees and of the administration over the past 10 years. "It was always dismissed as rumor, even by people who knew it to be true," said one. "It was just too horrible to act on."

Seen in this context, the convocation held last Thursday might be considered a "modified limited hangout." Two days before, a number of student leaders -- editors of the paper, heads of various campus organizations -- were summoned to a meeting with Hillsdale's chaplain and two of the college's deans. The purpose of the gathering was to talk about current events at Hillsdale. "There will be no discussion of President Roche," the group was informed moments after sitting down.

This is the sort of thing that on an ordinary campus would spark a sit-in, maybe an effigy burning. At Hillsdale, it provoked only tepid complaints, even from the local guardians of free speech.

A few hours after the convocation, half a dozen or so students sit in the offices of the Collegian, Hillsdale's newspaper, talking about the Roche Affair. All have just returned from class. None has yet received a straight answer from the college about Roche. "I haven't gotten explanations," says Teresa Masterson, a junior who writes for the paper. "I've gotten pep talks." Me too, nod the others. The words hang in the air. Masterson pipes up again, this time sounding apologetic. "They don't have to tell us. We don't have a right to know. We already know what we need to know." Again, the others nod. More details, Masterson says, would just be fodder for "human curiosity." The way she says it, "human curiosity" sounds about as appealing as "human waste."

"We want to project openness," Trowbridge said, shortly after news of the scandal became public. Then a memo went out to college employees instructing them not to talk to the press, and soon after, Trowbridge announced that officials would never again entertain discussion of the matter. Will members of the extended Hillsdale family -- particularly the donors and alumni upon whom it depends for funding -- rest content with a similar lack of curiosity? If so, Hillsdale risks being mocked by Roche's own words from his resignation statement. "Together we have built a beautiful dream," he wrote. "We have proved that integrity, values, and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world."