December 6, 1999
HORROR AT HILLSDALE
Low times on a conservative campus
JOHN J. MILLER
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 just minutes later, 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 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. “Hillsdale College has been overwhelmed by this crisis,” says Gleaves Whitney, an aide to Michigan governor John Engler. Whitney has been in daily contact with the school’s administration. “It may take a long time for the college to recover.”
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 single-handedly 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 reaching nearly 1 million readers. The school also boasts a $184 million 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” and 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 not all was 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.” The student newspaper has been censored. For many years, there was a feeling 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 (nicknamed “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, according to Lissa herself, who told this story in the final hours of her life.
For years, there had been speculation on campus about Lissa and President Roche. As Ronald Trowbridge, a vice president of the college, 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.
President Roche himself was married to June Bernard Roche, the mother of his four children. But in August 1998, after 44 years of marriage, he filed for divorce. Mrs. Roche moved out of the president’s home–known as Broadlawn–and into another house in town. Roche asked I.V. and Lissa to move into Broadlawn with him, ostensibly to look after his aged mother. Lissa was excited; I.V. resisted. But they went. At this point, according to I.V., he had no knowledge of an adulterous relationship between his father and his wife.
The divorce between President and Mrs. Roche was finalized in April 1999. At about this time, I.V. began to suspect an affair. Then, in early September, a new woman appeared on the scene with President Roche–Mary Hagan. President Roche announced his intention to marry her, and a wedding was hastily scheduled for September 13. Lissa and I.V. 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 I.V. became very tense. She actually left I.V. for a few days and distributed a memo to colleagues announcing plans to divorce him, shortly before the wedding of President Roche and Mary Hagan. But she returned, and I.V. hoped they would resume their normal life.
On October 15, I.V.–a history lecturer and physical-education teacher at Hillsdale–was playing racquetball at the athletic facility (the George Roche Health Education and Sports Complex). Lissa was at home. President Roche showed up at I.V. and Lissa’s house with the news that he was going to dump the wife he had just married. He asked Lissa to move back into Broadlawn, with I.V. Lissa was ecstatic, and rushed down to the sports complex to tell I.V. the good news.
The next day, Saturday, October 16, was a quiet one. Then, at about 1 a.m., I.V. 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 I.V., “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 [President Roche’s new wife] have reconciled.” She said, “Oh, sh**! Oh, no!” and sped 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. I.V. woke up around 8 a.m., as Lissa was leaving to check on I.V.’s grandmother at Broadlawn. Although it was Sunday morning, I.V. 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. Lissa was threatening suicide. She had done so in conversation with President Roche, apparently over the phone.
I.V. raced back to Broadlawn. Lissa was very upset and insisted on going to the hospital with I.V. They arrived there about 11:00. In the room, in I.V.’s account, were President Roche (lying in bed), the new Mrs. Roche, I.V., 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. I.V. turned to his father and asked, “Is she telling the truth or is she having a breakdown?” President Roche, says I.V., “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 I.V. 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.” I.V. did just this. His father rejected the idea and also, his tongue recovered, categorically denied that there was an affair. While at the hospital, I.V., concerned about Lissa’s suicide threats, tried to reach someone who could counsel his wife. He then went back home. When he got there, Lissa was sitting in front of the fireplace. They spoke briefly, but Lissa asked I.V. to go up the street to check in on his grandmother. I.V. was reluctant to do this, but hopped in his red pickup truck and made the short trip.
When he got to Broadlawn, he saw that his father and Mrs. Roche had just arrived, so he turned right around and went back home. He was gone for no more than five minutes, he says.
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 bolted down the same path that Lissa had used, and, from a distance, spotted her lying in the gazebo, with blood on her shirt. He cried, “No! No! No!” as he ran toward her body. It was still warm, but “there was a look of death in her eyes.”
All of this is, of course, a horrendous personal tragedy–but also, in certain respects, a public one. Lissa Roche had been a rather big deal at Hillsdale. She was managing editor of its high-circulation newsletter, Imprimis. She was 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, I.V.–who had suffered blows that stagger and sicken the imagination–began to sense that the college was going to spin the suicide: He believed it was going to suggest that Lissa had simply gone 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 spoke to Trowbridge, vice president for external affairs, who in turn called the chairman of the board, Donald Mossey, saying, “We have a problem.” Trowbridge went and heard I.V. 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, with a cryptic statement that only attracted further interest. The lid was coming off.
An emergency meeting of the full board was called for November 10. Roche flew back from Hawaii early. 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 in the 1980s, 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 contest 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 I.V.
On that day, the board and Roche issued a pair of statements, announcing Roche’s mutually agreed-on retirement. If Roche hadn’t resigned, he would have been fired–and stripped of a considerable retirement package he was already scheduled to receive. Blackstock was named acting president. The board also appointed a search committee–composed of William F. Buckley Jr., William J. Bennett, and three trustees–charged with finding a new president for the first time in nearly three decades. Roche, according to his daughter Maggie Roche Murphy, will leave the town of Hillsdale but live in the area for the near future. “We are happy that he has retired so that he can spend more time for himself and his family,” she says. Roche himself declined to speak to this magazine.
On November 11, the college held an all-school convocation, at which speakers made references to “recent distressing events.” Blackstock issued a memo to students, faculty, and staff citing Roche’s “right of privacy” and commenting “there are things that we do not know, and that cannot be known.” 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.
But that won’t happen anytime soon. Sometime after the convocation, Trowbridge changed his mind about President Roche. “I am now of the opinion he didn’t do it,” he told NR on November 16, refusing to elaborate. This about-face had one immediate effect: Bennett resigned from the presidential search committee. “Hillsdale’s position is incoherent,” says Bennett. “If they believe it’s seriously plausible Roche didn’t do it, they cannot let him leave.” Bennett added that in recent days he has received phone calls from the Hillsdale administration characterizing Lissa Roche as “a pathological liar.”
The town of Hillsdale 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.”
SEE ALSO: “Hillsdale’s Comeback,” by John J. Miller, National Review Online, September 10, 2007.