Sweeping the shadow of the past under the rug: How lack of recognition for historical harms still affects Wooster’s LGBTQ+ Community

Aspen Rush

Managing Editor

Maggie Dougherty

Editor in Chief

 

On April 12 at 4:33 p.m., The College of Wooster shared a message from the Board of Trustees on their Facebook page regarding the behavior of former President Howard F. Lowry. The message elicited a wide range of responses from a great number of alumni and students, quickly receiving over a hundred comments from members of the College community. A subset of these comments focused not on Lowry but on a different piece of Wooster history: the 1995 almost-presidency of Susanne Woods, who would have been the College’s first female president. Although the Board of Trustees never shared an official explanation for Woods’ stepping down, the alumni in the comments all held the same notion: Woods was dismissed because it was discovered that she had a female partner.

One alum wrote, “Let’s also address the dismissal of Susanne Woods [by the Board] because she was a lesbian in the mid-’90s while we are at it. […] I was appalled by the Board’s action then and I still see it as a blight on the history of the College.”

Charles Gall ’93 commented similarly, writing, “[It] would be lovely if the Board would do this kind of detailed and bulleted self reflection and pursuit of truth/restorative justice concerning the quiet payoff of Susanne Woods in the mid-’90s, after hiring her as president and then realizing she [was] a lesbian before sending her packing.” Others agreed, seconding the call for the Board to address Woods’ case and stating that they hoped to see justice for her. Another alum wrote, “The College owes a very public, comprehensive, genuine apology to Susanne Woods and an action plan to address past and present homophobia.”

Wooster in the 1990s was a very different place than the Wooster we know today. As one alum described, Wooster was a more conservative, “buttoned up” place, stuck slightly behind the rest of the world in a “sweet age” before swipe keys and cell phones. According to a Viewpoint written by Terry Miller ’90, in 1989, the College had not engaged in conversations about homosexuality in the campus comminity. Then, as they do now, Wooster boasted that they “celebrate diversity.” Even so, they did not have a non-discriminatory policy in place for LGBTQ+ individuals. Miller pointed to both students and administration alike for their exclusivity. The ’90s was also a time of more conservative social values, not just in Wooster, but nationally: The United States was a battleground between the progressive left and religious, conservative right.

While the ’90s seem like a recent past for many, public opinion regarding the LGBTQ+ community has shifted dramatically in the last 25 years. It was a decade punctuated by anti-gay legislation and hate crimes even as queer culture made its way into the mainstream. Madonna introduced voguing, Elton John came out, Pedro Zamora publicly battled AIDS and conversations about homosexuality entered public discourse. On the other hand, there was an endless list of politicians and civilians accusing gay and lesbian individuals of ruining the American way of life. Across the U.S., national and local governments attempted to pass anti-gay legislation.

In 1990, only five years since the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, queerness remained interwoven with stigma surrounding homosexuality. The American public was fueled by homophobic rhetoric echoed by conservative politician and radio show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh.

In 1994, only one year before Susanne Woods was dismissed, The Employment Non-Discrimination Act made its way to the floor of the House of Representatives once again after repeated failure. The law, if passed, would have protected lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals from employer discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. 

That being said, it was by no means unheard of to establish equality for gay individuals in the corporate sector. World renowned companies such as Xerox and AT&T publicly supported their employees and created anti-discrimination policies. Around the country, Wooster would have set the precedent for academic institutions in hiring their first woman president and their first lesbian president.

In this context, Susanne Woods was selected to be the first female president of The College of Wooster. Woods was chosen by a 16-person search committee tasked with finding Henry Copeland’s successor, made up of eight trustees and eight faculty members. Woods was an English literature professor who had received her doctorate from Columbia University, and at the time of her hiring was employed as the vice president for academic affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. At Brown University, she had been the director of graduate studies and the associate dean of faculty; she also founded the Women Writers Project. By all accounts, Woods was highly qualified in her scholarly, administrative and fundraising accomplishments. 

In April 1995, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees approved the nomination of Susanne Woods for president. Woods accepted the offer and was set to take office as Wooster’s tenth president on July 1, 1995. At the time, trustee and chairman of the search committee, John (Jack) Dowd, was quoted in The Akron Journal saying, “Our goal was to find the best president for The College of Wooster… and we have achieved our goal.”

The English Department, which was responsible for officially recommending Woods for tenure, was particularly excited to work with her. Nancy Grace, professor and chair of Wooster’s English Department at the time, stated in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I was thinking, ‘Wow, this person is extremely qualified, I’m glad they appointed her.’” 

Grace described the move as an inflection point, a moment where the College was on the verge of taking a major progressive step by hiring a woman to lead the school. Except something happened, and the scales tipped in the other direction. On June 30, Woods’ resignation was announced in a statement released by the College, citing Woods’ and the Board’s mutual “deep regret” over “significant differences concerning the role of the president.”

Speculations have been made about what “significant differences” were missed throughout the entirety of the search process and only discovered in the week before Woods took office. Although the relevance of this information is contested by some of the parties involved, Emeritus Trustee Jerrold Footlick wrote in his book, “An Adventure in Education,” “The one piece of important information that no one appears to dispute is that Susanne Woods had a close relationship with a professor of English at Denison University, Anne Shaver.” 

Dowd vehemently denied that any prejudice was involved in the decision. In the Sept. 1, 1995 edition of the Voice, Dowd said, “I think I have heard almost all the rumors, and none of the rumors are correct.” 

Grace recalls meeting Dowd for lunch at the Wooster Inn to discuss her concerns. “He totally denied everything — he just lied straight to my face,” Grace told Footlick in an interview, the transcript of which is stored now in the College’s Special Collections. She elaborated to the Voice that Dowd told her the decision had “nothing, nothing, nothing” to do with Wood’s sexual orientation. Nevertheless, Grace recounted, Dowd shared no reasonable alternative explanation, citing the confidentiality agreement that Woods and the Board signed as a condition of her resignation; still, she felt that he was lying.

Despite Dowd’s assertion that Woods’ sexual orientation played no role, multiple articles from the Voice and the Chronicle refer to the circulation of the Denison phone directory on Wooster’s campus, in which Shaver listed Woods as her partner. Although it was openly reported that Shaver identified herself as a lesbian, Woods was, according to the August 4, 1995 edition of the Chronicle, “a very private person who does not describe herself as a lesbian or discuss her sexual orientation.” Nevertheless, at around the same time the directory began to circulate, so did an op-ed by an openly lesbian professor at Kenyon College, encouraging Kenyon’s new president to work closely with female presidents at the other Ohio schools, including “Wooster’s newly appointed president, lesbian Susanne Woods.”

Although there are different accounts of the exact transmission of information, the details made it to the trustees and, according to a source who spoke with the Chronicle at the time, a few of the trustees met with Woods to ask her about the directory and the rumors. The full Board was alerted on June 20 that there would be a phone conference on June 29 to discuss Woods’ contract, and the next day, Woods resigned as president-elect. 

Reactions from the Wooster community to the Woods resignation were swift and strong. Carolyn Durham, a professor of French and coordinator of Wooster’s women studies program, told the Chronicle that she was “shocked and dismayed by the news.” She added, “It’s difficult for me to understand how there could have been ‘disagreements about the role of president’ that would not have been discussed prior to her appointment by the Board.”

In an interview conducted for his book, Grace told Footlick, “I can remember the day I heard, I just burst into tears — I really burst into tears. It was like we’d been stabbed. I cried, when [Emeritus Professor of German] Susan Figge told me, I just cried on the phone.” 

In another interview, Footlick asked another professor of English, Jennifer Hayward, if the English department felt angry about the decision. “I don’t know if even angry is the right word,” she answered. “I think it cut deeper than that. I think we felt betrayed. I think we felt as if we had this wonderful woman who was going to make connections for us with major funding institutions and with really exciting text projects like the Brown [University] project, and was going to bring all kinds of new ideas. Then, there was never a clear explanation for what happened.”

Wooster alumnus Charles Gall graduated in 1993, but was still living and working in Wooster in the spring of 1995. In the same edition of the Voice that shared a comprehensive interview with Woods, introducing her as president-elect to the Wooster community, there was an announcement that Judd Winick — roommate of Pedro Zamora, AIDS educator and MTV star — would be visiting campus to talk about Zamora’s life. As Gall listened to Winick speak, he said, “I realized how much Pedro had accomplished in the five short years between coming out and his death, and it made me think that here I was, still in the closet at 24 in small-town Ohio, living in fear. When I returned home that evening, I gathered the courage to come out to my roommate and his girlfriend, which began my coming out process to family and friends.”

Reacting to Woods’ departure just a few months later, Gall said, “As a newly gay alumnus of Wooster, the Woods situation was highly disappointing. For a college that openly promoted diversity and that engaged Winick to speak on AIDS education just months prior, the announcement was a confirmation that all the talk of diversity, at least as it related to sexual orientation, was simply lip-service, and that there was no way the Board was comfortable supporting a gay President who would be the face of the College and chief fundraiser.”

Since 1995, there has still been no official explanation for what happened because of the confidentiality agreement signed by all parties involved. Although the incident happened over 25 years ago now, it still lives on in the memories of many alumni and faculty who were here at the time, as well as in the way that current LGBTQ+ students interact with the institution. 

One of the clearest reminders of the Susanne Woods controversy is the John Plummer Memorial Scholarship for Promoting a Welcoming Campus for LGBTQ+ People. During his years working as the comptroller of the Wooster Business Office, Plummer was one of the only openly gay individuals on campus and served as a mentor to many of Wooster’s LGBTQ+ students. 

Following Woods’ resignation, Plummer and alumnus Hans Johnson ’92 discussed what could be done to support LGBTQ+ students on campus, and Plummer suggested the possibility of creating a scholarship. In an interview in 2018, Johnson recalled, “The Susanne Woods episode was a searing and stinging rebuke for people who respected LGBT rights and met for many of us who were LGBT ourselves. It wasn’t just us, but a whole network of allies was deeply offended by that move and by the signal that Wooster would discriminate in such a high, and such a highly exposed way in its expression of values.”

Though Plummer died in 2006 before the dream for the scholarship could be realized, Johnson continued advocating for its creation and by 2008 the endowment threshold for the scholarship was reached. Speaking to the importance of the scholarship in light of the case of Susanne Woods, Johnson said, “the Plummer Scholarship became an acceptable way for many deeply offended people to give to the campus for the purpose of institutional change, and I think we succeeded in that.” 

Eleanor Linafelt ’20, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS) and English double major, learned about the Woods story in the spring of her junior year while working on the WGSS digital history website. She said, “I was shocked by the story, of course, but also by the fact that I had never heard anything about it before, especially as a queer student and WGSS major fairly engaged in Wooster campus life. It occurred relatively recently but it does show how easily things can be lost in the institution’s collective memory, especially things that aren’t to be proud of.”

Outside of those researching the topic, recipients of the Plummer Scholarship may be some of the only students who hear directly about the Woods situation, and through them this history is remembered. Harry Susalla ’22, the 2021-22 recipient of the scholarship, told the Voice, “When I first found out about this moment in Wooster’s history, I was completely disappointed that the College made no effort to educate its students on its homophobic past. If the College publicly addressed this history, it would show me that they have a real commitment against bigotry, not just a performative one.”

Similarly, Mylo Parker-Emerson ’19, the 2018-19 Plummer scholar, recalled a sense of shock over hearing the story for the first time. “When I was in college right around the time it had been announced that Sarah Bolton was going to be the new president of the College, rumors started to go around about a previous President that was fired/never fully hired because she was a lesbian,” Parker-Emerson said. “I remember hearing this and being shocked because I knew about the Plummer scholarship. I remember thinking to myself how progressive of a school in 2014 to have a scholarship like this available.” They continued, “Hans describes [the scholarship] as a response to not only the silence of Wooster administration but also the blatant disregard to the queer students on campus. Which is ironic if you think about it; I was shocked that both of these things existed and yet one caused the other.”

Director of Sexuality & Gender Inclusion Melissa Chesanko also commented on the silence and its impacts both on alumni and current students. “The huge silence about the situation due to the non-disclosure agreement creates a vacuum that folks often try to fill with speculation and pieces of the truth,” she explained. “Because there has been no formal or informal resolution for the situation, many people have been unable to heal from the harm caused and also unable to move forward.”

Gall similarly spoke to this harm, stating, “In the 26 years since, there are still hurt feelings among gay alumni that this has never been addressed publicly.” He added, “Many of us (gay alumni) would like to see the Board address the handling of the Susanne Woods situation and perhaps issue an apology for their actions in 1995.”

Reflecting on how the incident relates to current students, Chesanko explained, “We often understand our own experiences through a lens of others’ experiences, and witnessing a negative climate for alumni in the past can put students’ own perspective of campus into a different light.” She also noted that the negative experiences of LGBTQ+ alumni from past decades has translated into more limited alumni engagement, “which affects students’ connections with queer and trans alumni, LGBTQIA+ centered donations and queer representation on our alumni board.”

Parker-Emerson spoke to the limited alumni engagement as well, saying, “To me, [the silence] highlights the continued effort of queer students and alumni and how that differs from institutional support. In a way it makes sense that older queer alumni aren’t as engaged, because think about what their version of the Wooster administration has showed them: silence.” 

They added, “Personally, I think if the College were to finally speak on this publicly, it would show students and alumni that they’re not alone in caring about making the College a better place, and not just for queer folks, but for every person the College goes out if its way to attract. To get to a better place, it’s best to be honest about where you’ve been and what you’ve done before.”

Finally, Chesanko emphasized the importance of representation at all levels of campus leadership. “Past leadership has put current leadership in a difficult situation by crafting this N.D.A.,” she said. “This is why it is so important to have diverse representation of all identities in positions of power, including and especially, on our Board of Trustees.”

The original 1995 Chronicle article detailing the Woods situation quoted Durham, who argued, “They didn’t need to know or not know” about Woods’ sexual orientation. “What they needed to decide is,” read the article, “can we handle it if the president is [gay]?” Without openly addressing that question at the institutional level and acknowledging the hurt that still lingers 26 years later, will Wooster be able to provide students the diverse and accepting campus it has always claimed to be?