In Memoriam

Remembering George Roche

The former president of Hillsdale College died last Friday. He was 71.

By 5.12.06

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Former Hillsdale College President George C. Roche, III, died last Friday, May 5, 2006, at 71. There are mixed feelings among conservatives between those who remember him fondly and those who were horrified by the circumstances which resulted in his resignation. Sometimes those two sentiments alternate.

It's hard to remember now just how Roche stood the higher education community on its ear. With a Ph.D. in history, he was working as seminar director at the Foundation for Economic Education when he was hired at Hillsdale. College trustees could have made a safer choice but they threw the long ball. Roche was 36 and the youngest college president in the country when he became Hillsdale president in 1971.

Roche changed the face of Hillsdale, both figuratively and literally. He wrote books about the struggle between the forces of excellence and mediocrity. He raised money. He created a seminar series that brought outstanding scholars and people in the news to campus so that students could learn from them. He built a mailing list using the new flagship newsletter, Imprimis. He attracted a generation of young professors and professionals who were glad to help realize Roche's vision for the school, academia in the larger sense, and the nation.

I went to work at Hillsdale College in 1982 to work in the Administration. It was an exciting time to be there. The War of Ideas was not an empty phrase. I worked with dedicated young professionals who gravitated toward the magnetic president. The lessons I learned from them about choosing the right words in print, how to behave in television and radio interviews, and how to deal with difficult people have stayed with me throughout my life.

Ronald Reagan was President and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain. Even though the Reagan Administration had a fairly conservative cabinet, Hillsdale was watching the Grove City v. Bell lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Education over whether federal aid to any student made the whole college subject to the full range of federal regulation. When the Court of Appeals ruled against Grove City, Roche began raising money to replace any federal aid to students so Hillsdale wouldn't be subject to federal regulation over the admission and retention of students or athletes. This raised little Hillsdale into a national symbol of independence.

There were those who wanted Roche to run for U.S. Senate in his native Colorado. I often used the back of "Roche for Senate" letterhead as typing paper in my IBM Selectric.

In 1983, a delegation of us self-described "bomb-throwers" from Hillsdale went to Bloomington, Indiana, to meet some fellow "bomb-throwers" who worked for a growing tabloid magazine called The American Spectator. That's when I met R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. and Wlady Pleszczynski. At that time, I couldn't imagine being published in a magazine such as TAS.
I left Hillsdale to run for U.S. Congress in 1984. Roche continued to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for Hillsdale, including capital campaigns to build needed new class buildings and a better athletic facility. He increased the campus endowment to nearly $200 million.

In 1998, Roche filed for divorce from his wife of 44 years. In the autumn of 1999, his daughter-in-law announced she and Roche had been having an affair for years. Hours later, she committed suicide. The liberal media had a field day pointing out the inconsistency of Hillsdale's reputation of traditional values in its curriculum and these accusations. Conservatives were appalled. The scandal hurt college fundraising, admissions, and its national image. The trustees let Roche go and hired Larry Arnn as his successor.

Did Roche and his daughter-in-law have an affair? Maybe they did. Maybe she just lost her mind or was angry because Roche was involved with a woman other than her husband's mother. Father and son were able to patch things up, which some think is evidence of Roche's innocence.

Maybe we'll never know for sure. When I remember George Roche, however, I prefer to think of him as on top of his game as an outstanding scholar and college leader.

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About the Author

Mark G. Michaelsen writes frequently about public affairs.