I’m now going to tell you a story that you have never heard. It is one of the most amazing stories in the history of education. It is also one of the most amazing stories in the history of the American conservative movement.
George Roche was the greatest fundraiser in academic history. There may be college presidents at Harvard or Yale who raised more money, although I doubt it. But never has anybody raised as much money for any academic institution by means of a complete deception. It was the greatest single deception I ever saw in the conservative movement. He was a genius.
Hillsdale College has a reputation for being very conservative. It has that reputation because of George Roche.
Roche had a strategy. He copied that strategy from Leonard Read at the Foundation for Economic Education. The strategy worked, but it was ultimately a gigantic deception.
THE STORY OF “THE FREEMAN”
Leonard Read had a tremendous idea. He came up with it only after 10 years of running FEE. He started a magazine called The Freeman. There had been a previous magazine called The Freeman, and Read controlled its name.
He told me the story behind his decision. Someone in the organization came to him in 1956 and said that there weren’t any new materials left to promote. He told me that he had thought this was a great piece of information. That was because it forced him to get more materials into print. It pushed him into starting The Freeman. He gave away copies of The Freeman. There was nothing else like it in the conservative movement in 1956. It was a nicely designed magazine. It had lots of articles on the free market. Nobody except the editor ever read every article in every issue, but there would always be one or two articles that somebody regarded as worth reading.
He never charged a dime. Anybody who wanted on the mailing list could get on just by asking. They could send a little money to FEE to get a box of copies to give away. All over the United States, people gave away copies of The Freeman. There was a book on libertarianism in the 1970’s with the title, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. No, it didn’t. It usually began with a copy of The Freeman.
This was a classic loss-leader. People got on the mailing list, and over time, they began to donate. Pareto’s law took over. About 80% of the donations provided 20% of the organization’s income. But those 80% were basic to capturing the 20% who donated enough money to supply 80% of the organization’s budget. Read recognize the truth of Pareto’s law, even though I’m sure he never heard of it.
Lew Rockwell imitated Read. The items on Mises.org are free. Rockwell has built the Mises.org site into a powerhouse. It has four times the traffic of the site of the establishment’s American Economic Association, the premier professional economics organization on earth.
FROM “THE FREEMAN” TO “IMPRIMIS”
In 1971, George Roche got the offer to become the president of Hillsdale College. He had been tipped off about the job by Robert Anderson, a Hillsdale economist who was a libertarian, and who was almost alone in his views at Hillsdale. He had known Roche when they were both at FEE. He promoted Roche for the position, a decision he soon regretted.
Roche knew exactly what to do. He imitated Read’s idea. He had seen it work when he was on the staff at FEE. He thought he could adapt it and do ten times better. He did far better than that.
As soon as he got to Hillsdale, he called Lew Rockwell. Rockwell had been his editor at Arlington House. Roche had several books published by that company, which published conservative books. I’m sure he never made much money in royalties, but that connection put him in contact with Rockwell. He hired Rockwell to come to Hillsdale and publish a newsletter. The newsletter was Imprimis. It was launched in 1972. The archives are here.
Roche’s strategy was to do with Imprimis what Read had done with The Freeman. He would give it away as a loss-leader. It was a whole lot cheaper to give away a newsletter than an entire magazine.
He had another stroke of genius. He would bring in some Right-wing speaker to Hillsdale, pay him a lot of money, have him give a speech, and then Rockwell would have the speech transcribed. The speaker got final editing rights to the printed version. Then, half a dozen times a year, they sent out the newsletter.
This gave the impression that Hillsdale was the most conservative college in America. That was exactly what Roche wanted to achieve. It was deception on a magnificent scale.
By 1978, Hillsdale College was the Potemkin Village of the American Right. It was a standard run-of-the-mill liberal arts college. It had no reputation academically. The only notable thing it had ever done was to host a basketball game in which it lost to an opposing team whose chief scorer scored 113 points, which set a national record. (“Bevo! Bevo! Bevo!”) That record held until 2013. It was set in 1954.
Hillsdale had a vaguely free market economics department, and had one conservative in the history department, Clarence Carson. The rest of the liberal arts faculty were liberals. But the dumb clucks in the conservative movement thought that Imprimis represented something other than Roche’s #1 fund-raising tool for skinning them.
Roche raised about $330 million with this scam — a lot of money back then. There was never a fund-raiser like him in academia.
As it turned out, his career ended in disaster. On a list of the top 10 scandals in the history of American college presidents, he is rated number one. He deserves to be rated number one. There has never been a campus sexual scandal to match it. But he never gets credit for what he really achieved. He created the most financially successful newsletter venture in the history of newsletters, and he also achieved the most successful deception in American higher education. He convinced donors with a lot of money and no sense that Hillsdale College was conservative, that it was an academic port in the storm, and that was the best place to send your kid to get a good education.
A college with average SAT scores of around 950 out of 1600 was better than a community college, but surely was middling. That was what the scores were under Roche in the late 1980’s. The campus official who leaked that information got ousted.
Roche did this by taking another man’s idea, perverting it, and using it to pull $330 million out of the conservative movement, back when $330 million was a lot of money. About half of the money was used to build an endowment to pay the salaries of academically unknown liberal professors. As for the rest? A few buildings. Not much else.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)