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The truth is buried

National | After months of interviews and tracking down rumors about a morally scandalous situation at America's conservative college, virtually no credible evidence emerges to implicate Hillsdale's board in a coverup for its former president

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

Following the abrupt announcement in November of the suspension and then "retirement" of George C. Roche III as president of famously conservative Hillsdale College in south central Michigan, WORLD sent two reporters to Hillsdale to distill facts from a campus and town boiling with rumors and tales of scandal. WORLD sent a third reporter in December to take a closer look, after the initial media frenzy had subsided, and during the relative calm of final-exams week. At the heart of the story was the suicide of Mr. Roche's daughter-in-law, Lissa (pronounced LEE-sah), 41, on Oct. 17 and her allegation less than two hours before her death that the pair had engaged in a long affair (see sidebar). Lissa Roche had collaborated on books with Mr. Roche, 64, and she ghostwrote other material for him. She also was managing editor of Imprimus, a newsletter sent to 900,000 people. She helped to arrange many of the scholarly conferences and other meetings that brought prominent conservatives to campus. Administrators learned of the allegation from her husband, George Roche IV, a teacher known on campus as "I.V." (pronounced Eye-Vee). The administrators in turn informed the board of trustees; the executive committee conferred by phone, and the full board-many of its members are prominent business leaders-was summoned to Hillsdale. The trustees concluded that even though Mr. Roche might be innocent of the charges, he would have to step aside pending an investigation and its findings-a standard procedure in high-profile cases involving leaders of nonprofit organizations. Mr. Roche, who raised more than $300 million for Hillsdale in his 28 years as president, decided to retire instead. Trustees gave him a farewell gift of between $2 and $4 million, according to various estimates; the trustees aren't saying exactly how much. (Mr. Roche's pay in 1998 was just under $581,000, including a deferred-compensation benefits package of about $407,000. A large chunk of his retirement fund accumulations went to his former wife, June, in a divorce settlement last year.) WORLD has examined court, police, and financial documents, and has interviewed many people on and off the 1,200-student campus. Rumors and accusations abound, and they involve many topics: the way Mr. Roche has used his power and treated the faculty over the years, the way the college has used its money, an apparent de-emphasis of religious values in the curriculum and publications, and even heavy drinking among faculty and officials (from Mr. Roche down). A network of dissident former teachers and ex-students keeps the issues alive in email exchanges. However, WORLD's inquiry has centered mainly on the role of the board of trustees in Mr. Roche's ouster and related issues: Did the board act responsibly? Had the board, as many critics suspected, been advised of purported moral failings and questionable appearances by Mr. Roche but glossed over them? Had administrators withheld such reports from the board? WORLD independently had obtained information that warranted such questions. Sadly, the board has chosen to remain silent. Board chair Donald Mossey, an Elkhart, Ind., businessman, did not return calls. Other board members declined to talk or referred calls to a college spokesman. Sources blamed the clam-up on litigation fears and a desire to channel all communications through a single official source, as per the corporate model in crisis communications management. One widely circulated rumor at Hillsdale is that the board had been notified about 10 years ago about an intimate encounter between Mr. Roche and his daughter-in-law witnessed by a college staffer, but the board dismissed the report as too trivial. WORLD traced this rumor to its source, a former administrator who supposedly took the matter to the board himself. He denied knowing about any such report to the board but said he had heard of such an encounter from a staff member, whom he declined to identify. Similarly, when tracked to their sources, other rumors of eyewitness accounts of intimacies involving the president and Lissa Roche also vaporized. The staunchest of Mr. Roche's critics acknowledged they had no direct evidence of infidelity or board discussion of it. Another rumor making the rounds: When Mr. Roche was arrested for drunk driving late one night years ago in a neighboring community, an "unidentified woman" also was in the car. June Roche, whom Mr. Roche divorced in papers filed in 1998, informed WORLD she was the unidentified woman. The couple was returning from a football game. Other reports of extramarital activity by Mr. Roche also lack verification. Mrs. Roche said her ex-husband was not a "womanizer" and she never had reason to suspect he might be having an affair with any other woman, including their daughter-in-law. "Only two people know the truth about that allegation, and one of them is dead," Mrs. Roche declared. She declined to discuss Lissa's emotional and mental state. (Relatives and co-workers had noticed an unusual change in Lissa's behavior in September. Five weeks before she died, Lissa suddenly announced she was quitting as managing editor of Imprimus and would be moving to an undisclosed location. She left detailed instructions on work needing to be done. She was having problems at the time in her marriage and with her son, a Hillsdale student. Meanwhile, during this same period, George Roche was considering a breakup with his new wife, according to son I.V.) Mrs. Roche also insisted she would have known if board members had ever discussed allegations of moral failure with Mr. Roche. "Mr. Mossey is a fine Christian gentleman, and he wouldn't have put up with such conduct by George for a minute," she said. WORLD also spoke with acting president Robert Blackstock and several administrators close to board proceedings. All denied that any allegations of immorality on Mr. Roche's part had ever been brought to board members prior to October. No coverup of misdeeds had taken place. Although some administrators, including Mr. Blackstock, said they had been aware of "the rumors" percolating among faculty for years, they said no one had come forward with any hard evidence or firsthand sightings. And, reminded one vice president, when administrators heard I.V.'s account of Lissa's claim, they immediately took the matter to the board, and the board acted promptly. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it appears the Hillsdale board has acted in this particular matter as most boards would. Other questions remain, including the one about the place of God and moral absolutes in a conservative worldview at Hillsdale (which was founded in 1844 by Free Will Baptists as a liberal-arts institution committed to instilling moral values, and which attracts large numbers of evangelical students). But that's another story.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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