Last April, I researched and wrote an article for the Voice about Howard Lowry, titled “The complicated legacy of President Howard Lowry: As our values evolve, do our heroes change as well?” Apparently, according to the Wooster Board of Trustees and their major donors, the answer is a resounding no.
The article outlined a pattern of predatory sexual harassment from a much older Lowry towards a great number of young female graduates. What I described was Lowry’s pattern of using his position of authority to impress himself on much younger Wooster alumni through promises of recommendation letters and leveraging of academic connections on their behalf.
The article was explicitly published with a content warning for sexual harassment and predatory behavior. The article did not, however, allege sexual assault, illegal activity or relationships with students. Nevertheless, these are still the goalposts that the board has set for evaluating Lowry’s actions. Apparently, anything falling short of this does not constitute a problem for them.
I do not want to rehash the history of Lowry’s behavior here when I have already written extensively on that topic; I have had multiple conversations directly with the board and have shared my evidence with them. However, in the time since publishing the first piece, I have spoken with another alumna from Lowry’s tenure, who described being similarly pursued by the President in the pattern established by the women interviewed for the original article. She recalled Lowry’s secretary leaving a message at her campus dorm, inviting her to dinner with the President—something she also shared with the board in their investigation. She was a student at the time.
The board asserts that “When Dr. Lowry was made aware that his romantic advances were unwelcome, he ended them.” This completely misses the power differential involved in his relationships. The alumna I recently met explained that as a student receiving that invitation, “I did not have the option of saying no to dinner with him, as the President of the College. I know that.” It is easy enough to say in theory, “they could have just told him no if they weren’t interested,” but that is not often the reality for young professionals, desperate for new opportunities, when someone so influential pursues you with enticing professional connections.
The email from the board refers to some women who “found Lowry’s attention flattering or positive.” I do not begrudge them that: the women involved are allowed to feel however they want about their own relationships, and it is to be expected that there would be a range in how women reacted to his advances.
However, the positive experiences of these women do not invalidate the negative experiences of the others. This should not be used to dismiss or disprove the experiences of women who felt uncomfortable about being pursued by the president of their college. To be honest, the use of those testimonies to undermine those of the brave women and their allies who came forward to share their stories is absolutely unforgivable in my eyes.
For Irene, George and other unnamed women involved with the story and myself, this decision is a huge disappointment. More than that, it feels like a slap in the face—an utter rebuke of what these women experienced. On the day the decision was announced, Irene wrote in an email to President Bolton, “I and others thought C.O.W. was much better than this. Gut wrenching.”
However disappointing, I don’t think any of us were truly surprised. From day one, we knew where the decisions were coming from. We know that the student center renovations are being financed in large part by the $10 million donation of one singular alumnus: Richard Bell. Although the board would not speak to me during the investigation about the impacts of donor preferences on the renaming, it was the sentiment of some sources that the name would never change because Bell did not want it to. If this is indeed true, it seems to me that one man shall almost single-handedly determine the fate of the student center.
To ask alumni how the school can support equity for current and future students (as was asked privately of Irene) while blatantly disregarding the concerns of those most affected… that is just downright inappropriate.
The board puts alumni and donor interests above the wellbeing of their students. As Irene described, “Depressing. An archaic decision to line their pockets for donor bricks and mortar instead of uplifting the quality of C.O.W. souls, particularly young women.”
The other alumna I recently spoke with similarly expressed disappointment on behalf of future generations of students. She asked me, “what message does this send to incoming female students?” To me, the message is clear: Money talks. If it is not illegal, we will turn a blind eye. We will not protect you against the powerful. And, for the time being, there shall be no public acknowledgement for the wrongs of the past.
There are days that I am proud to be a Wooster alumna. This is certainly not one of them.