A Family Secret Kept In the Ivory Tower?

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Not far from the center of campus at tiny Hillsdale College is a kiosk displaying these lines from St. Paul: LET US BEHAVE PROPERLY...NOT IN CAROUSING AND DRUNKENNESS, NOT IN SEXUAL PROMISCUITY AND SENSUALITY. The words are supposed to remind the 1,150 students of their school's rockbound commitment to morality, probity and restraint. In the 28 years that George C. Roche III was Hillsdale's voluble president, that commitment made him a hero to American conservatives--that and his decision 14 years ago not to accept any federal funding or allow his students to accept federal loans, in order to avoid Washington's guidelines on affirmative action and equal outlays for women's sports. But students can't bear to go near the kiosk anymore, not since it became a gathering point for the reporters who have gone to Hillsdale to find out if Roche, campus patriarch, truculent moralist, really did carry on a 19-year affair with the wife of his son.

Hillsdale started to turn upside down last month, after Roche's daughter-in-law Lissa, 41, shot herself to death in a gazebo in the school's arboretum. In the days that followed, her grieving husband George Roche IV, 44, a lecturer in history and exercise physiology at the school, publicly accused his father of having had an affair with Lissa. He told Hillsdale's board of trustees, and the conservative magazine National Review, that just hours before she shot herself, Lissa, editor of the school's monthly journal of conservative thought, had gone to the hospital room where his diabetic father was being treated for an insulin reaction. Before the assembled family--George Roche IV, Roche and his new wife--Lissa allegedly announced that she had been sleeping with the elder Roche for most of her 21-year marriage to his son. Hillsdale officials say Roche denied the affair to the board, "invoking God as my witness." Then two weeks ago, he abruptly retired, walking away from a job that made him the fifth-highest-paid college president in the country, with salary and benefits that Forbes magazine estimated at $524,000 last year. "Together we have built a wonderful dream," Roche said in his resignation letter. "We have proved that integrity, values and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world." No one answered the door at Roche's home, and he did not return calls seeking comment.

Roche was once something of a legend, a man who brought famous faces and fat wallets to the secluded campus 90 miles southwest of Detroit. To conservatives he was a bulwark against moral squalor and political correctness. Even liberal critics marveled at his gift for persuading donors to support him in his stand against federal money. During his time as president, he raised more than $300 million. Today Hillsdale survives mostly off interest from a $172 million endowment. It was just $4 million before Roche became president in 1971.

Now police are in front of the Roches' homes on campus to keep away the curious. And Hillsdale students are struggling to reconcile their feelings for the school with their evolving judgments about Roche. Many Hillsdale students say they stopped looking up to Roche last year, when he and his wife of 44 years divorced in the midst of her battle with liver cancer. "The sooner we forget George Roche, the better off we'll be," says Stephanie Gast, 21, a senior from New Jersey. Just five months later, Roche married another woman. "He's made this school and the whole conservative movement laughable," said history senior Chris Ratliff, 20. The accusations have proved equally troubling to at least one of the conservatives who rushed to Hillsdale's defense. After Roche's resignation, former Secretary of Education William Bennett became head of its presidential search committee. But last week Bennett, who loudly denounced Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, stepped down, accusing the Hillsdale board of refusing to ferret out the truth. "First it was represented to me that the allegations were true. Then this week people said she may have been lying," he says. "The school can't just move on. A woman is dead." Ron Trowbridge, Hillsdale's vice president for external affairs, says, "We may never know the truth about the alleged affair." But Bennett insists, "They have an obligation to tell the truth." It's something St. Paul might have said.