The sordid story surrounding George Roche is a vivid reminder of human depravity, and the harm evil can inflict upon those close to it. Even if justice is done, as has partly been the case here, it can take a heavy toll on the innocent as well as on the wrongdoer.
It is incomprehensible that a father would have an intimate relationship with his son’s wife and, when confronted with her public confession and suicide, depart a few days later on a honeymoon with a new wife, having just abandoned his wife of 44 years who is suffering from liver cancer with a $1000 check and the injunction to get out. Not even Shakespeare would have dared construct such a fictional tragedy. And, yet, such are the charges against George Roche. Is it not significant that so many, including his son, believe the charges, despite his denial?
Justice certainly demands the exposure and condemnation of such a despicable man. But with justice comes a horror upon his family and an embarrassment to all of us who have ever crossed his path. How many times I have asked myself how different my life would have been if George and I had never met that spring of 1971. But we did meet, and I did introduce him to Hillsdale College, and two years later I left Hillsdale to escape him.
I joined the Hillsdale faculty in the fall of 1965. The following year my wife Beverly and I built our new home in Hillsdale and within a few years our two daughters were born. Hillsdale College was a good school in those days, and it had a good faculty and administration. The eight years that I taught economics and business courses at the college were some of the most pleasant of my life. At the time of George Roche’s arrival the economics department included Dean Russell, John Sparks and myself. We were a compatible staff of free-market economists who shared a common libertarian perspective.
And then came George Roche. Dean Russell had already made the decision to leave that fall but, before doing so, observed to me, “It’s good that I’m leaving, for I doubt if I could remain with George in charge.” All three of us, Dean Russell, George Roche, and I had worked at the Foundation for Economic Education previously. I assumed Dean was just making a personal judgment about his attitude toward George. Soon his words took on a different meaning. Years later I asked him if he had known something at the time which he hadn’t shared with us. He just smiled and responded, “Some of us are just slow learners!”
Since both George and I shared many common associates and friends from our days at FEE, and because I had been responsible for presenting him as a candidate to Hillsdale, I was very pleased with his appointment as Hillsdale’s new president. I had read his writings on education and Frederic Bastiat, and I believed we shared a similar libertarian perspective. In addition to our common backgrounds at FEE, George had brought with him two individuals with whom I developed a close friendship. Barry Boyer and Bruce Oyen were people George had met through his work at FEE. Barry was a young free-market economist who joined us in the department, and Bruce was involved with media development. Both were libertarians as well. They were good family men too, and all of us were looking forward to a promising future at Hillsdale.
It didn’t happen, of course. Within two years we would all be gone, along with my old friend and colleague, Clarence Carson. And soon thereafter the other conservatives and libertarians with whom I had worked would all be gone too. It wasn’t exactly a purge, even though for some it must have seemed so. It all came from a growing disillusion among us about George Roche.
His winning charm and warm manner were traits, or should I say skills, such as I’ve never known in any other person. He was an incredibly engaging individual, the kind of person in whom you willingly put your trust, and he knew it and he used it. I’ve often reflected that, if there is a Satan doing his evil handiwork through us, George is just the kind of guy he would recruit.
Of course, until these latest scandalous charges against him, I would not have been willing to so condemn him. The man I saw in the beginning was a person of duplicity, hypocrisy, and meanness. His corruption in the form of debauchery and depravity apparently came later. In the early years what I witnessed was mostly a pattern of lies.
One of the first indications that there was a different man behind the facade was George’s intolerance toward criticism. Some people can handle negative comments better than others, but George could not accept any. Like most narcissists, George had an insatiable appetite for praise but a zero tolerance for the slightest disapproval or even a differing judgment. Undoubtedly this flaw had much to do with his wrongful treatment of his wife, June, over the years. June is a gracious lady of the “old school” who suffered silently through horrendous and repeated verbal abuse at the top of George’s lungs. All of us knew of his hidden and extraordinary temper, in stark contrast to his public image. You learned quickly the futility of “arguing with George” or even disgreeing with him. One hundred percent approval and agreement were required.
When George arrived at Hillsdale in 1971, the college was participating in the federal government’s work/study program. This grant program was originated a few years earlier by an administrator, much to my chagrin. It was a needless government intrusion into student employment policies of the college, and to meet federal guidelines, the college seemed to be engaging in some highly questionable student employment practices. It was a bad precedent for the College, and both George and I agreed it should be terminated as soon as possible. But two years later when I left Hillsdale, the government grants to the college were still being reported by Congressman Ed Hutchinson in the local newspaper.
Now none of this would matter so much but for the manner in which George handled it. He began a publicity crusade, both in written advertisements and public speaking, declaring that the college had never accepted “one cent of government funds in its entire history.” He knew, and he knew we knew, that this was a lie. Professor Boyer finally challenged him on it, and to this day he still believes it was the cause of his eventual termination. George continued to profess the lie until today it is enshrined as part of Hillsdale College’s heritage. It was a false claim which George knowingly conveyed to all who would listen. To me it was an early demonstration of how his rhetoric conflicted with factual reality. How many private supporters over the years have relied on that falsehood can never be known, or even whether it mattered to them. But it mattered to me.
There was another big lie, still in use today: that Ludwig von Mises had selected Hillsdale to receive his library. In fact, Mises had never heard of the school. The books were purchased from his widow, and two donors-a wealthy businessman and a famous conservative foundation-were told that each had paid the entire cost. More lies.
It was during his second year and my last year at Hillsdale that things really started to come apart. In the spring of 1972 George had hired Clarence Carson as chair of the history department, commencing that summer. Clarence and I had previously taught at Grove City College, and we were close friends. When George told me that he had hired Clarence, after the fact, I was somewhat confused that he hadn’t discussed it with me earlier. I naively assumed at the time he just wanted to surprise me with the good news,…and it did. I couldn’t have been more pleased that Clarence was coming to Hillsdale. Had I known what was lying ahead for all of us, my enthusiasm would have evaporated.
It was that fall that Lew Rockwell also came to Hillsdale. The gathering of Lew, Barry Boyer, Clarence Carson, John Sparks, and Jim King made for some great times that fall, even though they were to be short lived for most of us, and ultimately, for all of us. It all came apart while I was on a Florida holiday with my family during Christmas. Upon my return from the break I learned that Clarence Carson had been terminated and Barry Boyer would not have his contract renewed in the spring. I was furious and immediately requested a meeting with George Roche to seek some explanation from him over what was happening. The meeting was, of course, an exercise in futility.
It was a session which I’ll never forget. The moment I walked into his office he announced that the “subject of Carson” was not open to discussion. I opened it anyway and George informed me, “If you don’t like it here, you should leave too.” I responded, “I have tenure and don’t have to leave, so why don’t you leave?” Of course, I knew at that moment I couldn’t remain at Hillsdale, and at the end of the year I accepted a position at FEE, a move that did not “sit well” with George. Our relationship over the years thereafter remained civil, but guarded. I had come to the sad conclusion that George was a man without integrity.
A year or so after my departure from Hillsdale I learned something that, to this day, still infuriates me. During George’s first months as president he announced he was going to buy a Porsche 911 Targa. June, told me, “I just can’t object to this indulgence because he has worked so hard and this is something he has always wanted to do.” I agreed with her and encouraged George to buy the car. Barry Boyer even went with him when he picked it up and, like myself, was pleased that George was buying something he really wanted.
During the fiscal year 1971-72 the administration had all of us on an austerity budget to keep the operating deficit to a minimum. Faculty were requested not to incur any expenses unless absolutely necessary. It was a “belt-tightening” time at Hillsdale. So imagine my shock when it was discovered that the expensive sportscar had been purchased at college expense, at George’s request! The incredible indifference to the college’s budget problem, not to mention his duplicity with me and others, confirmed for me his lack of integrity. We had learned what a master he was at conveying false impressions, and thus leading people to wrong conclusions. I never forgave him for that falsehood. It served also as an early example of his willingness to abuse his power.
The years passed, and though George was on FEE’s board, my contact with him was limited. As he became more involved with college affairs, he had less and less to do with FEE. After my return to FEE in 1973, I began to hear some revealing stories about George and, of course, I shared my own experiences as well. Perhaps the most curious of these was told to me by my old friend, Ben Rogge. Ben was a professor of economics at Wabash College, a FEE trustee, and a regular lecturer in FEE seminar programs. He was a man of great wit and an outstanding speaker and thinker. Were he alive today I know Ben would be relating one of his favorite quips, that “A thoroughly dishonest man can last longer in the pulpit or as a college president than he ever could as a used car salesman!” When George came to FEE as director of seminars in the late sixties, he asked Ben if he could use his lectures at FEE weekend seminars. Ben graciously agreed, but used to joke afterward, “I didn’t mind him giving my lectures, but he even stole my jokes!” Those who had heard Ben’s lectures previously were astounded by how George could be so brazen as to repeat the lectures word for word before audiences acquainted with Ben Rogge. George never seemed to be bothered about using the work of others, whether approved or not.
And so in 1979 when Ed Opitz, who had been the resident theologian at FEE for the previous twenty years, walked into my office and asked me to read in the latest issue of Imprimis, an essay written by George Roche, I suspected something was amiss. After reading it, Ed handed me some old typewritten pages of a sermon he had delivered in l969. He said, “Now read my sermon.” The plagiarism was appalling. Entire paragraphs of Ed’s sermon were scattered throughout the Imprimis essay by George Roche. My first reaction was to ask Ed, “Did he have your approval to use your writings?” Of course, he did not. My second reaction was that George’s presidency was over. The plagiarism was so serious and extensive that its disclosure would surely topple any college president.
But there was a problem. George was still a trustee of FEE and, more importantly, he and Ed had been long-time friends. The Reverend Edmund Opitz is one of the most decent men I’ve ever known and a total gentleman. (Not only that but he performed the wedding ceremony for Beverly and me in FEE’s library on his own 15th wedding anniversary in 1961!) He was, and is, a man who would never harm a friend, even if wronged by that friend. His response when I expressed outrage over George’s plagiarism was to quote that old adage, “It’s the highest form of flattery.” He contacted George, quietly, and George responded, quietly! The matter never went public even though it traveled the “gossip mill” for years thereafter. He got away with it.
There was another episode at FEE involving George which created a great deal of consternation. One day we received a letter from one our contributors reprimanding us for sharing our donor list with Hillsdale. He was certain we were guilty, since the same mailing address error appeared on both of his envelopes. It confirmed something we had long suspected. As a member of FEE’s board, George received our confidential monthly donor report. From the beginning at FEE we had supplied this information to trustees so they could know who was supporting our work and, if they wished to do so, could contact the donor with a further expression of gratitude. Upon discovering that George was using our confidential donor list for fund raising activities at Hillsdale, we were forced to change our policy of sharing this information with the trustees. Thereafter, we supplied only a “summary” of monthly donor information, deleting the addresses of our contributors. George’s improper use of our confidential donor list violated his stewardship duty as a FEE trustee. It was another instance of his brazen disregard of ethical standards.
Over the years rumors kept surfacing and people kept passing through Hillsdale, disillusioned and bitter over their encounters with George. The only time I ever intervened again at Hillsdale was in 1990, when Jim King resigned after twenty-five years at the college. Jim has always believed that the suicide of our close friend Bert Fink, who had taught art at the college, was partially due to Bert’s despondency over the way George was running the college. It was a bad era in Jim’s life. Jim and I arrived at Hillsdale together in 1965, and perhaps because we both grew up in the Pittsburgh area, we immediately developed a close friendship which continues to this day. Jim had become sort of a “Hillsdale icon” during his tenure at the college, and it was inconceivable to me that he was leaving of his own accord. I wrote to George, urging him to do everything possible to prevent Jim’s departure, but he was welcoming the event. George viewed Jim (who was widely admired by trustees, faculty, students, and alumni) as some kind of personal threat, and thus was pleased to see him leave. Jim’s departure was a tragic loss for the college which could have been prevented, but there could be only one big man on campus.
In 1992 I retired from FEE and thought I had heard the last of George Roche. I still suffer a personal regret over having introduced George to Hillsdale in 1971, and now more so when I see the culmination of my error with this sordid affair being reported nationwide. It has caused me to reflect on the years and realize how that casual meeting in 1971 has so dramatically impacted on the lives of so many of us. In the beginning I saw a man of great talent and promise. But as time passed I became disgusted by his hypocrisy. However, not until this latest scandal did I realize how thoroughly corrupt and evil the man had become.
The question, of course, is how will his 28 years at Hillsdale play out? Does it merely end with the destruction of one fallen man? Does the $340 million in private support raised during his tenure somehow balance the scales? Does the college not bear any of the burden or responsibility for the years of the Roche presidency? Has it just been nothing more than a good story with a bad ending? It seems to me that these, and many other questions, must be confronted before the college can “move on.”
The initial response of the college seemed promising. After some early vacillation, the college announced the dismissal and replacement of the president. The question of what will follow has yet to be answered. A board of trustees that has evolved over a long period of time under the tenure of a dominant leader is much like a defendant-selected jury. George understood how to use power within a not-for-profit organization,…he established a large number of board members and weeded out his critics over time. Such a strategy assures virtual control to a man seeking power. He was an expert on power,…he once wrote a booklet by that title!
How else can you explain the disproportionate compensation package-$550,000 a year-that George had acquired during his tenure? I have no doubt that even a preliminary investigation of his financial arrangements with the college will yield some shocking disclosures. Power corrupts, and is used for the benefit of he who wields the power. His greedy indulgence in buying a Porsche at college expense in the first year of his presidency is probably mild to what has transpired since. The question is whether the trustees are willing to look. I’m afraid it’s much like the futility of expecting an accountant to audit his own books. They will find only what they want to find, and the rest will be buried. Now that George has left with a reported $2 million more in a retirement package, it is the trustees and administrators of the college who remain behind to answer these questions. The college cannot escape with impunity from the 28 year reign of George Roche.
There has been a lot made of the $340 million of private gifts received by the College during George Roche’s tenure. But that begs the next question: How has it been expended? Less than half the total, $160 million, is reported to have been accumulated in the endowment fund (which would have grown enormously over the past few years). While a few new buildings and additions have been constructed in the past 28 years, certainly not all of the remaining $180 million was expended on capital construction. Was the balance used to cover operational deficits resulting from a short fall of student revenues? And, if so, to what extent were these deficits generated due to excessive expenditures in non-student activities, especially by George’s private fiefdom, the Shavano Institute? The college will be facing such questions in the near future, and it is imperative that such inquiries not be greeted with more silence.
The college, if it is to achieve any credibility, must open its windows and let the stale air out! Questions of proportionality and excess must be examined. Costs are just as important as revenues, sometimes even more so. For example, Imprimis maintains a mailing list of almost one million. That’s nearly a thousand copies for each student enrolled at the college! The annual cost of this publication, and the overhead in honoraria and management of it, has to be a major item in the college budget. It would be interesting to compare this cost against student tuition revenue. Like George Roche’s half-million-plus compensation, the cost and magnitude of Imprimis is obviously out of proportion for a college the size of Hillsdale.
It’s not my intent to belittle academic quality at Hillsdale, for it is indeed a fine college with an excellent faculty. However, claims of high academic standards can be misleading. Back in the late eighties a Hillsdale official commented to me, “Hillsdale students have an average SAT score in the nine hundreds and, yet, almost eighty percent of them are on the dean’s list. What does this say for our academic standards?” Such a candid critic was soon discovered and ousted by George! But his question does remind that the upper limit of academic standards are ultimately determined by the students. Obviously, students with SAT scores of 1600 can handle a more rigorous curriculum than students scoring 950. Only brighter students can make higher standards possible. Any teacher who sets academic standards higher than the capability of his students will soon have an empty classroom. The great teacher is one who sets demanding standards which are realistic and achievable for his students. This has been, and I assume still is, the uniqueness of Hillsdale College, where a personal and close contact exists between faculty and student. Hillsdale has always understood that a demanding culture of academic achievement is the first requirement for a quality institution of higher learning.
It is precisely for this reason that colleges have differing admission standards and guidelines. The sad flaw at Hillsdale has been the massive public relations effort to create a conservative image which does not, and never has, corresponded to the structure of its faculty. I used to like observing that if college catalogs were subject to false advertising laws, all college administrators would be in jail. But we know that at Hillsdale the culprit has been far more than admission-department rhetoric over the years. Of course, Hillsdale has had, and has today, many fine conservative faculty members. But the notion that the faculty as a whole has been conservative is absurd. We live in an age of extreme statism, and Hillsdale was not isolated from that reality. Statist politics dominate intellectual thought today, to such an extent that conservative ideas are rarely even heard in most college classrooms. The uniqueness of Hillsdale is that the conservative voice is being heard at all; but it was always a minority voice.
The final shame of George Roche, I fear, may be his destruction of Hillsdale’s reputation as a fine liberal arts college founded upon the traditional values of Western civilization. It is an all too human tendency when reacting against an evil man to discard the good with the bad. It is for this reason that the college must act openly and frankly as it cleanses itself not only of the onerous images of George Roche as incestuous adulterer, but also of George Roche as an abuser of trust, a user who saw the deep pockets of conservatives and looted them for his personal aggrandizement.
There is much bad to overcome, but there is more good to be told about the institution and its traditions. The task for Hillsdale College now is to tell it all honestly.
December 3, 1999
Professor Anderson, a student of Ludwig von Mises and Hans F. Sennholz, taught economics at Grove City College and Hillsdale College. He was also a long-time senior staff member of the Foundation for Economic Education, retiring in 1992.