Hillsdale revisited

Thomas Sowell

12/29/2000 12:00:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

"It's a small college, but there are those who love it." These words, spoken two centuries ago by Daniel Webster, referred to Dartmouth. Today, they apply with equal strength to Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Hillsdale has a long and distinguished history, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. Blacks and women were graduating from Hillsdale before the Civil War.

More recently, Hillsdale has become widely known for two things. First, it refused to accept federal money, in order to be free of the federal control, red tape and bureaucracy that come with the money. Hillsdale became a beacon of independence and a beacon of traditional values that were being buried under trendy political correctness on other campuses across the country.

Just a year ago, Hillsdale was in the news again -- in a much more tragic manner. Lissa Roche, who played an important role in Hillsdale's recent history, was found shot dead. Even more sensationally, charges were made that she had been involved in an affair with her father-in-law, the college's longtime president, George Roche III.

Two conservative magazines -- National Review and the Weekly Standard -- repeated these allegations as if they were established facts. Their accounts of Lissa Roche's supposed suicide read almost as if they were eyewitnesses, when in fact they were accepting just one version of what happened as 100 percent true. George Roche III's denials were brushed aside.

Worse yet, the Weekly Standard made their version of what was supposed to have happened a basis for attacking Hillsdale College itself, not just its president. Even though Dr. Roche resigned rather than try to carry on with an ineradicable cloud of suspicion hanging over him, there were loud demands from various quarters that the college stop "covering up" and tell "the whole truth."

After the Weekly Standard and the National Review led the rush to judgment, the mainstream liberal media piled on. People who had found excuses for Bill Clinton's proven actions were scathing against George Roche III on the basis of unsubstantiated charges. As for the college authorities' not telling us "the whole truth," it never seemed to occur to some of these critics -- including some well-known conservatives -- that perhaps the college authorities did not know the whole truth, even aside from the legal complications. Only two people knew the whole truth and one of them was dead.

Now, a year later, we may be getting as close as we are likely to get to the whole truth because a new book has just been published, titled "Hillsdale: Greek Tragedy in America's Heartland" by Roger Rapoport. Its story is very different from the one that appeared in the media last year.

The story that the media seemed so certain was true last year looks less and less likely as the various pieces of evidence are examined in this book. Even the official ruling of suicide is called into question -- and the slipshod police investigation even more so. Since Lissa Roche's body was cremated within hours of her death, we may never know the whole story.

What we do know is that a man's reputation has been ruined and a college smeared on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. That is a second tragedy for Hillsdale College, where applications have declined. It is perhaps even more of a tragedy for those parents and students who are looking for a place with fine academic standards and a commitment to traditional values, because Hillsdale remains such a place -- and there are not too many others.

As one of those who knew Lissa Roche and was pained and shocked by her death, I went over the police report in detail last year with my wife, an attorney. No matter who we assumed was telling the truth or who we assumed was lying, the story just did not add up. There were obviously big missing pieces.

This new book provides some of those missing pieces. It details the personal and family problems plaguing Lissa Roche, the personal frictions within the extended Roche family and the dire and intractable medical problems complicating matters still more. It was an explosive mixture that apparently blew up.

Exactly how we may never know. But we do know that George Roche III was nowhere near where Lissa died. Incidentally, Dr. Roche's former wife refuses to believe the allegations of an affair between him and Lissa -- and ex-wives are not always charitable. Maybe the rest of us ought to hold off as well -- and not scapegoat Hillsdale. It's a small college, but there are those who love it.