Politics & Policy

Horror at Hillsdale

A conservative citadel, rocked by scandal.

In recent days, Hillsdale College — a citadel of American conservatism — has been rocked by a hideous scandal. The college’s longtime president, George Roche III, has been forced to resign. This is a scandal with many highly personal aspects, but one with certain public implications as well. National Review’s reporter John J. Miller has been on the scene. He is the only journalist who has spoken with President Roche’s son, George IV, a key figure in the drama. He is the only journalist who has seen George IV’s police statement. He has talked extensively with Hillsdale administrators, professors, and students. President Roche himself declined to talk to Mr. Miller. It is largely on George IV’s account that the below, exclusive report is based. A fuller version of this story will appear in the forthcoming issue of the magazine.

Hillsdale, Mich.

Shortly after noon on October 17, Lissa Roche unlocked her husband’s gun cabinet and removed a .38 special. She stepped out of their kitchen door into the backyard, crossed the grass, and went through a wooden gate leading to the Hillsdale College arboretum. She proceeded down a narrow trail to an open hollow with a stone gazebo. She sat down, placed the barrel of the gun behind her ear, and pulled the trigger. When her husband, George Roche IV, arrived, her flesh was still warm to the touch; but she was dead. The suicide of Lissa Roche has reverberated throughout the entire conservative movement.

Tucked away in rural Michigan, Hillsdale College may seem no different from any other small liberal-arts school in the Midwest — yet it is one of the most important institutions in American conservatism. It is a college that teaches a traditional curriculum, promotes what it considers genuine intellectual diversity, and refuses to accept a penny of federal aid. For conservatives, Hillsdale is meant to be a model for how higher education should work.

But Lissa Roche’s suicide has ruptured the college, guaranteeing that Hillsdale will long be known as the school whose prominent president, George Roche III, allegedly conducted a 19-year affair with his daughter-in-law, who was the mother of his grandson and an employee of the college. The episode may also contain broader lessons for conservatism — especially about the wisdom of building institutions outside the liberal currents of the higher-education mainstream.

George Roche III arrived in the sleepy town of Hillsdale, just north of where Indiana and Ohio meet along the Michigan border, in 1971. As president, he would almost singlehandedly transform the place, making it famous on the right as an intellectual hub that features a world-class lecture series, holds the libraries of Russell Kirk and Ludwig von Mises, and publishes a monthly newsletter that reaches nearly 1 million readers. The school also boasts an endowment suitable for a college many times its size. Roche, in fact, was one of America’s best conservative fundraisers. In his 28 years as president, he brought in more than $324 million, including some $45 million last year.

Hillsdale needs all of this money because Roche, for most of his presidency, refused to buckle under pressure from the federal government to alter admissions policies for the sake of affirmative action. In 1985, it even became necessary to tell students they could not accept GI Bill benefits or Pell grants, because the Supreme Court ruled that this would make Hillsdale “a recipient of federal funds,” subject to the coercive dictates of Washington regulators. Roche cited Hillsdale’s impressive history of nondiscrimination — it was admitting women and blacks before the Civil War — and refused to budge. He became a hero to conservatives, a plucky David who stared down the federal Goliath.

Hillsdale’s isolation is one of its major appeals to students (there are currently 1,138) and parents. Removed from the distractions of big cities and political correctness, the college seems an ideal place to focus young minds. Yet there had long been rumblings that all was not well.

A number of professors have said that they were fired, and several students have claimed that they were expelled, for clashing with Roche or the administration. In 1988, the American Association of University Professors censured Hillsdale for “inadequate protection against an improper exercise of administrative power.” For many years, there was a sense that Roche had not only built Hillsdale but lorded over it. In 1996, an unnamed former employee told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “It’s a rather Stalinist kind of environment.” Hillsdale’s greatest assets — its remoteness and Roche — were simultaneously severe weaknesses.

In the late 1970s, Roche’s elder son, George IV (known as “I-V,” pronounced “eye-vee”), attended the college. There he met Lissa Jackson, a classmate. They fell in love and married. In 1980, Lissa and George III (President Roche) began an on-and-off affair, which lasted until her death. This is according to Lissa herself, who made the claims during the final hours of her life.

For years, there had been speculation on campus about Lissa and President Roche. As Ronald Trowbridge, a college vice president, puts it, “A lot of us suspected that Lissa might have been in love with George.” But the speculation had been confined to whispers and rumor, and few believed that Lissa’s longings were requited.

President Roche himself was married, to the mother of his four children. Yet in August 1998, he filed for divorce. Mrs. Roche moved out of the president’s home — known as Broadlawn — and into another residence in town. Roche then asked IV and Lissa to move into Broadlawn with him, ostensibly to look after his aged mother and his adolescent son. Lissa was excited to move into Broadlawn; IV resisted. But they went. At this point, according to IV, he had no idea that there might be an immoral relationship between his father and his wife.

The divorce between President and Mrs. Roche was finalized in April 1999. It was at about this time that IV began to suspect an affair. Then, in early September, a new woman appeared on the scene with President Roche — Mary Hagan. He announced that he intended to marry her, and a wedding was scheduled for September 13. Lissa and IV were asked to move out of Broadlawn. They returned to their old residence, just down the street, but Lissa was extremely jealous. The marriage between Lissa and IV became very tense. She actually left IV for a day or two, shortly before the wedding of President Roche and Mary Hagan.

On October 15, George IV — a history lecturer and physical-education teacher at Hillsdale — was down at the athletic facility (the George Roche Health Education and Sports Complex), playing racquetball. Lissa was at home. President Roche showed up at IV and Lissa’s home with the news that he was going to dump the wife he had just married. He asked Lissa to move back into Broadlawn, with IV. Lissa, ecstatic, rushed down to the sports complex to tell her husband the good news.

The next day, Saturday, October 16, was a quiet one. Then, at about 1 a.m., on October 17, IV was awakened by a phone call from his father’s wife. She said that his father was having a diabetic insulin reaction. This typically happened to President Roche once or twice a year. Says IV, “It was an old drill.” He called 911, drove a few seconds up the street to Broadlawn, and went to the hospital with his father. He stayed there with him until about 3 a.m.

Returning home, he reported to Lissa what had happened, adding, “By the way, it looks like Dad and [his new wife] have reconciled.” She said, “Oh, sh**, oh, no,” and rushed off to the hospital by herself. She was there only briefly; the new Mrs. Roche asked her to leave.

Lissa returned home and went back to sleep. IV woke up around 8 a.m., when Lissa was getting ready to go to Broadlawn, to check on IV’s grandmother. Although it was Sunday morning, IV had a class to teach, out in a field, about seven miles north of town. It began at 10:00 and was to last until 1:00. At 10:30, however, President Roche’s secretary, Pat Loper, showed up at the field, to tell IV that Lissa was threatening suicide. She had done so in conversation with President Roche, apparently over the phone.

IV immediately went to Broadlawn, where Lissa was. She was very upset and insisted on going to the hospital with IV. They arrived there about 11:00. In the room were President Roche, the new Mrs. Roche, IV, and Lissa. At this point, Lissa made a full confession. In a highly emotional state, she blurted out that she and President Roche had been having a years-long affair. IV turned to his father and asked, “Is she telling the truth or is she having some sort of breakdown?” President Roche, says IV, “didn’t say a word. I could tell by looking at him that she was telling the truth. I saw the look in his eyes. He was caught.”

Lissa and IV returned to their home. Said Lissa, “You need to go back and see your dad and tell him we all need to leave Hillsdale and go somewhere else and start over.” IV did just this. His father rejected the idea and also, his tongue recovered, categorically denied that there was an affair. While at the hospital, IV, concerned about Lissa’s suicide threats, tried to reach someone who could counsel his wife. He then returned home. When he got there, Lissa was sitting in front of the fireplace. They spoke briefly, but then Lissa asked IV to go up the street to check in on the grandmother. IV was reluctant to do this, but did so.

When he got to Broadlawn, he saw that his father and Mrs. Roche had just returned, so he turned right around and went back home. He had been gone for no more than five minutes.

Back at home, he sensed that the house was empty. He raced through it twice. He then noticed that the kitchen door leading to the backyard was slightly ajar. He opened it, stepped into the yard, and saw that the gate leading to the Arboretum was open. He ran down the same path that Lissa had used, and, from a distance, saw her lying in the gazebo, with blood on her shirt. He cried, “No, no, no, no.” Though she was still warm, “there was a look of death in her eyes.”

This was, of course, a horrendous personal tragedy. As for Hillsdale College, it had a huge PR problem on its hands. Lissa Roche had been a rather big deal at Hillsdale. She was editor of one of its publications, and managing editor of another. She was also well known by important conservatives as a contact person for the college. It was often she who would invite guests and escort them around campus.

In the hours and days after the suicide, George IV — who had suffered blows that stagger and sicken the imagination — began to sense that the college was going to spin the suicide: He thought it was going to say, “Here was a woman who simply went crazy.” And that, he insists, “is just a f***ing lie.” So he started to talk to friends, and ultimately went to the administration. On October 27, he met with Robert Blackstock, then provost, and told his story. Blackstock then spoke to Trowbridge, vice president for external affairs, who in turn called the chairman of the board, Don Mossey, saying, “We have a problem.” Trowbridge then went and heard IV himself, and considered the information devastating.

There ensued a flurry of conversations among Hillsdale brass. Roche had gone off to Hawaii for his honeymoon. On November 1, an executive committee of the board heard the evidence, via a conference call (Trowbridge was in Oxford, England, where his daughter is attending school). That same day, the board placed Roche on a leave of absence. It announced this fact on November 4, in a cryptic statement that only excited further interest. The lid was coming off.

An emergency meeting of the full board was called for November 10. Roche flew back from Hawaii. This was a trustees-only meeting — no staff, no others. Trowbridge, speaking for the prosecution (so to speak), made his presentation. He said, roughly, “We will never know the truth. But the perception of the truth is what condemns President Roche. He cannot retrieve his credibility. There are only two people in the world who know for certain what happened — one is dead, and the other is denying everything.” Yet, he continued, there was compelling circumstantial evidence. Trowbridge had worked for Chief Justice Warren Burger, and he recalled for the board something that Burger had once told him: “Circumstantial evidence is the most damaging evidence there is, because it’s the most difficult to arrange.”

Trowbridge left the room. In came President Roche, with his new wife, who sat silently beside him during the meeting. Roche began by saying (again, roughly), “I understand this is over. I can’t fight the perception. I can’t continue as Hillsdale president.” That cleared the air, in a way: Roche wouldn’t resist his departure. He then swore that he had not had a sexual relationship with his daughter-in-law, “with God as my witness” — a powerful statement in a roomful of conservative trustees. Choking up, he said, “I loved Lissa, and Lissa loved me. I think she got very, very confused.” He blamed himself for not recognizing the problem. In this, he seemed to be spinning out a “fatal attraction” scenario, the one so offensive to IV.

On that day, the board and Roche issued a pair of statements, announcing Roche’s mutually agreed-on retirement. Blackstock was named acting president. The board also appointed a search committee, charged with finding a successor to Roche (who for almost three decades had been the personification of the college). The committee is composed of three trustees and two others: William F. Buckley Jr. (editor-at-large of National Review) and William J. Bennett. Roche, according to his daughter Maggie Roche Murphy, will leave the town of Hillsdale but live nearby for the immediate future.

On November 11, the college held a convocation for the students, at which speakers made references to “recent distressing events.” Many students have been frustrated by talk like this. They are angry at the administration for not dealing with them forthrightly enough. Others just want the whole thing to go away.

The town is reeling. The college is confused. At the Hillsdale Motel, they have put up a little saying on the marquee: “Some family trees suffer from lack of pruning.”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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