Sex, lies and suicide

While championing family values, former Hillsdale President George Roche III was sleeping with his daughter-in-law.

Published January 19, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In November, another right-wing wolf cloaked in family values sheepskin was unzipped to the American public. George Roche III resigned as president of conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan after accusations of a quasi-incestuous relationship with his daughter-in-law, Lissa.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 42-year-old Lissa and her husband, George Roche IV, visited the 64-year-old Roche at the hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for diabetes. With her husband and father-in-law as witnesses, Lissa claimed that she and the elder Roche had been off-and-on lovers for 19 of the 21 years she and her husband had been married. Lissa returned to her campus house after the confession and armed herself with a .38-caliber handgun. She walked out of her backyard and through the college's arboretum to a stone gazebo, a secluded location where students once went to relax, guzzle a few beers or liaise with members of the opposite sex. There, Lissa ended her life.

Earlier in the year, George Roche III had shocked Hillsdale by divorcing his wife of 44 years (who had cancer) and remarrying five months later. Lissa, according to George IV in an interview with National Review, was very disturbed by the presence of a new woman in her father-in-law's life. On Nov. 9, with the story breaking in the national media, Roche resigned after 28 years as Hillsdale's president.

"We have proved that integrity, values and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world," he wrote in his letter of resignation. "Hillsdale College is a monument to those beliefs." His statement made no reference to the firestorm raging at Hillsdale.

Roche is rumored to have bailed out with a golden parachute. The college refuses to confirm the amount of his retirement package, but a member of the Roche family puts the figure at $3 million.

The fallout from Roche's spectacular blowup has stunned the conservative movement. During Roche's tenure from 1971 to 1999, Hillsdale College -- in the words of William F. Buckley Jr. -- "became the most prominent conservative college in the country." Roche was a movement hero, adored by his followers for savaging a system of higher education hopelessly infested by government money and political correctness. He was propelled to right-wing stardom after the Supreme Court's 1984 Grove City decision, which ruled that colleges enrolling students who used Pell grants, veterans' benefits and other forms of government aid were "recipient institutions." Grove City forced all recipient institutions to comply with Title IX provisions, which prohibited sex discrimination.

Grove City would have allowed the government to monitor the race, age, sex and ethnic origins of Hillsdale's employees and students, which was ideologically unacceptable to Roche and Hillsdale's conservative backers. To keep the government off its back, Hillsdale announced it would no longer admit students receiving government aid, thereby eliminating itself as a recipient institution.

Roche figured that Hillsdale's refusal to accept students with government funding would attract big money, enough to replace the government's cash with private aid. By all accounts, Roche excelled at coaxing conservative fat cats to open their wallets for Hillsdale. A former senior-level employee of Hillsdale calls him "one of the great fund-raisers in the history of political ideologies." Roche had hauled in nearly $325 million by the time he resigned -- enough to increase Hillsdale's endowment from $4 million to $184 million, build modern facilities and provide ample student aid to any of Hillsdale's 1,200 students who needed it. If Roche seldom made rounds on campus, it was understood: He was out raising money to beat back the liberal devils lurking outside Hillsdale's gates.

Conservatives were delighted with their school, which they referred to as the "bastion of freedom," the "citadel of conservatism," the "city upon a hill." They praised its traditional Great Books curriculum. And, as the student body became more hardcore Christian right, some may even have sung hallelujahs to God for sending George Roche III to Hillsdale College.

This attitude has understandably softened a bit since the Lissa affair went down. While Roche says he's innocent, it would take hard work to fill a country church with believers. Hillsdale supporters may now deem George Roche a lecherous beast cloaked as a family-values conservative, casting him with the lot of Dick Morris and Henry Hyde. Reflecting on the news coming from Hillsdale, Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron wrote, "It was enough to make a secular humanist believe in divine retribution."

For many who have dealt with Roche, the Lissa affair is simply the crowning hypocrisy of his reign. "This man," says one Hillsdale professor, "is a phony and a fraud." The Roche family member explains, "He's not really the type of person that everybody thinks he is. He's kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde." Roche had a reputation for possessing a free-range phallus rumored to have visited students and college employees. The senior-level employee who marveled at Roche's fund-raising skills claims to have fled Hillsdale when he suspected Roche was putting the moves on his wife. Roche was considered downright ruthless by those unfortunate enough to cross him.

"What a study in the use of almighty power," says another Hillsdale professor. "The meanness and the spite of Roche are beyond any human being I've seen." In a 1996 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Hillsdale spokesman Ronald Trowbridge told the paper that Hillsdale's trustees "think George walks on water." In other words, Roche could do whatever the hell he wanted -- like allegedly screw his son's wife for 19 years -- as long as it didn't embarrass the school.

The result of Roche's attitude was students and professors who claim they were unjustly kicked out of Hillsdale. The most prominent example is Mark Nehls. According to Hillsdale officials, Nehls got the boot in 1991 for improperly signing a business contract while he served as treasurer of a student organization. Over the years, the school's explanation for expelling Nehls has evolved. Trowbridge told the Detroit Free Press that Nehls was expelled for misrepresenting his off-campus newspaper, the Hillsdale Spectator, as an official school publication. The school has always denied that it expelled Nehls because of the Spectator, which ran editorials illustrating how Hillsdale was a land of hypocrisy. But the school's denials, which have evoked laughter and mutterings of "bullshit," have never carried much weight among those at Hillsdale. According to Nehls, "Everyone with enough awareness to realize the United States was carpet-bombing Iraq knew I was expelled for publishing the Hillsdale Spectator."

Students at Hillsdale can't protest or disseminate literature without administrative approval. And the student newspaper is censored by the administration. Dean Carol Ann Barker was the designated censor while I worked for the Collegian, Hillsdale's student newspaper. She killed a piece that argued Hillsdale needed a faculty senate. Editors were also warned not to print the names of professors who had "disappeared," meaning their contracts were terminated.

"It's a legal matter," Barker told Lingua Franca in a 1996 interview about her censoring duties. Barker implied that such censorship was necessary to avoid potentially libelous stories and that students were ignorant of liability law.

"The stated reason is often lawsuits," said David Bobb, who edited the Collegian in 1995. "The unstated reason is embarrassment to the institution." Indeed, Hillsdale's imitation of Pravda was enough to make some conservatives wonder if a state university swarming with the most rabid breeds of feminists, multiculturalists and gays could be any worse.

Hypocritical, holier-than-thou platitudes are de rigueur for Roche, who pocketed one of the nation's highest salaries for a college president. In 1999, Forbes magazine reported that Roche's total 1997-98 compensation package came to $524,000. Yet in his 1994 book "The Fall of the Ivory Tower," Roche points to generous presidential salaries as an example of corruption in higher education. "In 1990-91, at least three universities paid their presidents more than $400,000 a year in salary and benefits," complains Roche, "and twelve paid more than $300,000."

Critics also claim Roche mythologized some aspects of Hillsdale's past in order to attract donors. The most serious allegation -- that Roche lied about Hillsdale taking direct government funding -- was made by Robert G. Anderson, a professor at Hillsdale during the first two years of Roche's presidency. Roche "began a publicity crusade, both in written advertisements and public speaking, declaring that the college had never accepted 'one cent of government funds in its entire history,'" writes Anderson in "George and Me," an essay published at Roche "knew, and he knew we knew, that this was a lie."

Hillsdale spokesman Frank Maisano admits the school participated in a work-study program from 1969 to 1977. Hillsdale received only a "small amount of dollars, mostly for low-income families," stresses Maisano. Even so, Hillsdale's participation in the program overlaps a period in which Roche proclaimed to the world that Hillsdale was free of the government's tainted money.

As a committee made up of trustees, William F. Buckley and others, seeks a new president, Hillsdale's conservative critics warn that the scandal isn't over yet. "Central Hall [the college's administration building] must be reformed before any real change will take place at Hillsdale," says Marc Kilmer, a 1999 Hillsdale graduate. "The problems were much deeper than George Roche." Indeed, tyrants like Roche typically surround themselves with sycophants, henchmen, cowards and other lowlifes. Until Roche's boys are flushed out of Hillsdale College, the school will continue to be a boil on the conservative movement.

By Jonathan Ellis

Jonathan Ellis is a journalist and publicist for the band Mystery Train. He attended Hillsdale College from 1993 until he was expelled in 1996, and is currently collaborating with several other former Hillsdale students on a book about their experiences.

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