Hillsdale College is a strange place, but no stranger than many small, provincial educational institutions. It is said by the National Review to be "one of the most important institutions in American conservatism," but contrary to what that publication and others would have us believe, the woes that have descended upon it have little to do with conservatism or any other ism.
Conservatives fear that the "hideous scandal" at Hillsdale will have repercussions "throughout the entire conservative movement" (again to quote National Review), while liberals giggle at reports of outlandish sexual behavior by members of a movement prone to holding the rest of the world to impossibly high moral standards. But both interpretations, though understandable, miss the point, which is considerably less specific and rather more interesting: that human beings are infinitely fallible and that institutions as well as individuals can fall victim to their weaknesses.
Hillsdale is keeping as mum as it can about the resignation of its president, George Roche III, indeed is trying with pathetic desperation to spin the story out of existence, but the details by now seem reasonably clear. For two of the nearly three decades he was at Hillsdale, Roche is said to have had an affair with Lissa Roche, the wife of his son. A month ago, after blurting out this astonishing news to adult members of her family, she committed suicide. Her husband, George Roche IV, soon thereafter talked to a member of the college administration, and in short order George Roche III resigned; neither he nor the college explained why, preferring to cloud the matter in evasive banalities.
The whole bizarre business is a terrible stain on the Roche family, so one can only pity those who must cope with its repercussions, but though it tells us important and interesting things about American conservatism, it is in no significant way a stain upon that movement. It was not Roche's conservatism that got him into trouble any more than it was Bill Clinton's liberalism that got him into trouble; it was libido pure and simple, compounded in both cases by arrogance and the sense of invulnerability that high office too often imparts.
It does tell us that American conservatism, as Tucker Carlson and Andrew Ferguson pointed out in the Weekly Standard, has created an "incestuous world" outside the mainstream, "a parallel universe with its own magazines, publishing house, newspaper, television network--and, of course, in Hillsdale, its own college." That the pinnacle of "conservative" higher education in the United States is a tiny, little-known college in south-central Michigan says worlds about the insularity of the movement--more specifically, its activist hard core--and suggests that conservatism's hold on the country is a good deal more slippery than is widely believed, but this has nothing to do with George Roche III and little to do with Hillsdale.
Purely by coincidence, I spent a day and a half at Hillsdale early this fall, less than two weeks before Lissa Roche's suicide; if I met her I do not recall it, and the great man Roche III was off on one of his innumerable fund-raising ventures. I gave a speech under the auspices of the journalism program, met with students and faculty, and inspected the campus. Conservatism was in evidence, but it was hardly monolithic--especially among students--and it was not what made the deepest impression on me. Rather, I was struck first by the extreme isolation of the college and second by the Big Brother-like, inescapable presence of George Roche III.
The isolation came as no surprise. I grew up on an equally secluded campus where my father was headmaster, and went off to school in similar environments. Private schools and colleges usually operate on close margins, so they are drawn to inexpensive rural or small-town locations. This is good for their budgets but bad because they become hermetic, inward-looking and self-obsessed, which explains the old adage I am so fond of quoting: Academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so small.
In the case of Hillsdale this was compounded many times over by Roche, described in the Weekly Standard by a former Hillsdale faculty member as "a cult leader masquerading as a college president." In the college bookstore I found little for sale beyond textbooks, supplies, souvenirs and books written by Roche, several of them self-published (which, on an annual salary of about $450,000, he could well afford to do). In the display case at the entrance to the college guest house, Roche's books were also on view, and his name was on the Roche Sports Complex, one of many items thus yclept.
The price Hillsdale has paid for the scores of millions Roche raised on its behalf among the individual and corporate lions of the far right is a not-inconsiderable portion of its soul. If it must cope for years with the aftermath of Roche's misbehavior, this is not because Roche did what he did in Hillsdale's name but because Hillsdale permitted itself to become so intimately and intrinsically bound up with him that man and college became indistinguishable.
This is a pity. Hillsdale is far too ideological for my tastes, and probably for those of most who are reading this, but its refusal to follow academic fashion is admirable, as is its insistence on exposing its students to bedrock Western cultural and intellectual tradition. My impression was that it had attracted a good faculty and lively students. But it hitched its wagon to a star, and now that star has crashed all too ignominiously to Earth.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.