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Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 1999 /15 Kislev, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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The truth and Hillsdale --
Suicide, scandal and disgrace. Those are three words that most conservatives would never have dreamed would be sidling up to the name Hillsdale College. But that is the gloomy reality.

Hillsdale College has been the symbol of robust and defiant conservatism for nearly 30 years. Everyone in conservativeland admired what George Roche III was able to achieve with a previously inconsequential little college. As John J. Miller recounted in National Review, Roche's arrival in 1971 transformed a backwater college nearing bankruptcy into a national symbol boasting contributions in excess of $324 million.

Hillsdale gave conservatives debating points. When liberals urged that the only way to prevent institutions of higher learning from engaging in racial and sexual discrimination was government mandates, conservatives pointed with pride at Hillsdale, which declined to accept federal subsidies or loans of any kind, and yet boasted of its non-discriminatory history. Hillsdale had been accepting women and blacks since before the Civil War.

And when it seemed that most universities in the nation had been utterly corrupted by political correctness and academic foolishness of one kind or another -- Hillsdale and a handful of other schools stood out as proud adherents of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman tradition. At Hillsdale, character was prized as much as scholarship.

And so it came as a ghastly shock to learn that Lissa Roche, daughter-in-law of college president John Roche and editor of the widely circulated college magazine Imprimis, had shot herself to death after revealing to her husband that she had been engaged in a 19-year affair with his father.

The confrontation apparently took place in a hospital (the elder Roche was recuperating from a diabetic incident). At George III's bedside, in the presence of his second wife, Lissa told her husband George Roche IV (nicknamed I.V.) about the affair. As reported by John Miller of National Review, I.V. then turned to his father and demanded, "Is she telling the truth or is she having a breakdown?" George III said nothing. "I could tell by looking at him that she was telling the truth," I.V. continued. "I saw the look in his eyes. He was caught."

In the next several days, events moved swiftly. George Roche III resigned as president of Hillsdale, and a committee -- including William Bennett and William F. Buckley -- was hastily assembled to search for a replacement. Bennett asked college officials if the rumors about an affair between Lissa Roche and her father-in-law were true and was told that they were.

But within a few days, the story being pushed by Hillsdale and its former president changed. The same spokesman who sadly assured Bennett that the rumors were true now told members of the press that Lissa had been a pathological liar. He further mused that George Roche III might be "a condemned innocent man."

Clintonian morality, it appears, can infiltrate even where federal dollars dare not tread. The post-mortem treatment of Lissa Roche (whatever her true sins may have been) bears all the earmarks of defamation. Lissa is being treated in death as Monica Lewinsky would have been if she were not such a dilatory dry cleaner -- seduced and traduced as the saying went.

This was too much for Bennett, who withdrew from the committee and condemned Hillsdale. If the college truly believes that Roche may be innocent, he pointed out, how can they possibly let him leave in this manner? But, as seems obvious, Roche is probably not innocent, despite his claim before the board of trustees "with God as my witness" that he never had a sexual relationship with that woman, er, Lissa Roche. Would an innocent man's first instinct in the face of such a damaging and horrifying rumor be to resign or to fight? It appears that Roche was unprepared to fight a living Lissa Roche but more than happy to smear a dead one.

Does this impugn the entire college? That depends upon what comes next. It must be disorienting to lose the guiding spirit of the college. But those who remain must either figure out how to live by the principles they espouse, or give up the enterprise of education. They can start by telling the truth.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate