Will Dr. Lowry Remain The College of Wooster’s Hero? Board of Trustees Release Findings of Inquiry and Students Respond

Aspen Rush

Editor in Chief

 

In the days prior to fall break of this year, Sally Staley, chair of The College of Wooster’s Board of Trustees (BoT), and Tom Gibian, vice chair of the College’s board of trustees, released the Special Committee’s findings of an investigation into the personal conduct of Dr. Howard Lowry during his time as president of the College from 1944-1967. The investigation came as a result of the persistence of an alumna pursued by Lowry.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement, an alumna from the class of 1962 — identified in Voice articles only by her first name, Irene — reached out to Sarah Bolton in Nov. 2017 to share her experiences regarding former President Lowry with the College for the first time. Between Nov. 2017 and June of 2018, Irene and Bolton exchanged a series of emails relating to the naming of the Lowry center and the dynamics of the Board at the time. After a lack of a substantial response from College officials, Irene reached out to the Voice directly and asked if the Voice’s staff heard of any other women with similar experiences who might validate the claims she was raising to the Board. Led by Co-Editor in Chief, Maggie Dougherty ’21, the Voice launched an investigation into the validity of these claims. Dougherty conducted a thorough investigation, combing through Special Collections, reading biographies of Lowry’s life and histories of the College, speaking with alumni and collecting additional documentation of Lowry’s personal and professional life. Dougherty’s investigation found ample evidence to suggest that former President Lowry engaged in predatory behavior towards recent female graduates of the College. The Voice published Dougherty’s investigation, “The Complicated Legacy of President Howard Lowry: As Our Values Evolve, Do Our Heroes Change as Well?” on Apr. 16, 2021. Dougherty’s article prompted many members of the College community to reconsider their idolization of the College’s former president. The full article is  on the Voice’s website. 

After Dougherty notified administration in advance of the article’s publication and made a request for comment, the BoT sent an email in response to the allegations, outlining the board’s next steps. First, the BoT appointed a Special Committee of trustees ranging in identities, ages and experiences. The Special Committee’s goal was to conduct an investigation free of bias into the allegations against Lowry. The Committee’s inquiry surrounded whether Lowry committed sexual assault or engaged in any illegal behavior.

After concluding the investigation, the Special Committee’s goal was to develop a set of recommendations regarding the potential renaming of Lowry namesakes. Committee members were selected intentionally to represent Wooster’s diverse campus community. Additionally, none of the members knew Lowry personally. 

Following the committee’s formation, they hired independent law firm BakerHostetler, a firm with “extensive experience in gender bias and sexual harassment” according to the Special Committee. However, their core practice groups, as outlined on their website, do not include any specialization in gender bias. The College’s contract with the firm guaranteed the privacy of those who wished to maintain confidentiality. The Committee wanted to ensure that their investigation was up-to-date with practices, as they conducted extensive research on the procedures and grounds for renaming the student center. The Committee elected to draw on guidelines from Stanford University’s “Principles and Procedures for Renaming and Other Features at Stanford University.” As per the procedure, a name change is necessary if  “there is strong evidence that retaining the name is inconsistent with the University’s integrity or is harmful to its research and teaching missions and inclusiveness.” 

The committee spoke directly with fifty  people who had personal experiences with Lowry. The BakerHostetler team interviewed the two alumni who came forward in the Voice’s original investigation. In addition to interviews, the committee reviewed more than 2,000 pages of documents from the archives. 

After months of investigations, the Special Committee did not find Lowry responsible for any legal wrongdoing or improper behavior with students. However, there was evidence that Lowry pursued multiple women within a few years of their graduation. When he pursued recent graduates, Lowry maintained his role as president and even suggested they seek employment at the College. 

Following the inquiry’s conclusion, the Special Committee recommended to the BoT that Lowry Student Center maintain its name, as requested by its donors. The BoT accepted the committee’s recommendation. 

After the BoT reached a conclusion and decided to maintain Lowry’s name on the student center, alumni directly affected by Lowry’s behavior and who testified to the Board were made aware of the outcomes. Shortly following their notification, the Wooster community received an email with the investigation’s findings. Enclosed, they detailed the review process, the findings of the review, the recommendation of the Special Committee and the Board’s decision. The email also listed Lowry’s accomplishments and his continuing impact on the College.

As Riley Smith ’22 addressed at the biannual Student Development Meeting,“That email began not by discussing the allegations themselves or the College’s plans to investigate them, but by detailing Lowry’s many contributions.”

 Shortly after the BoT email was sent, all students received a follow-up email from Myrna Y. Hernández, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students. The email acknowledged the potential negative implications of the decision and provided student resources including the Title IX coordinator, counseling services and the chaplain. 

Many students took issue with the Special Committee’s recommendations and with how the BoT conveyed the inquiry’s conclusions. Smith expressed that the email’s timing, sent mere days before fall break, “felt like an intentional attempt to prevent student organizing around the issue.” 

Smith also emphasized that “certain behavior is not acceptable simply because it is legal. Regardless of romantic intent or lack thereof, it is inappropriate to offer employment specifically to young women one finds attractive.”

Chair of the Board Sally Staley also echoed this sentiment, seemingly contrasting with the conclusion of the Special Committee, saying “I don’t think his conduct is something I would support.”

Lia Kahn ’22, interim president of Sexual Respect Coalition, reflected on the findings’ ramifications: “Do we as an institution want to send the message that we protect and revere predators while discrediting and actively harming survivors? What would happen if a current president or administrator acted this way? Why aren’t we holding Howard Lowry to the same standards?” Since the BoT’s decision, a new petition emerged on Change.org titled “COW Community Urges Board of Trustees to reconsider Lowry Center Name Change.” 

Though the BoT reached its decision, the question posed in Dougherty’s article remains: “As our values evolve, do our heroes change as well?” Looking back at Lowry’s life, it is  difficult to reach a conclusion about his actions within a modern context. That being said, it is essential to validate the experiences and needs of survivors. In a conversation with Voice editors, Staley reflected on this question, again appearing to contradict the decision. “Our heroes do change,” she said. “If anything has been highlighted for us, it’s a belief in the critical importance of equity. We need to do more work. We need to challenge ourselves to think when we need to change our heroes.”

One thought on “Will Dr. Lowry Remain The College of Wooster’s Hero? Board of Trustees Release Findings of Inquiry and Students Respond”

  1. I find it disturbing that the secret and special committee would give the donors power to determine the name. That era of bowing to capitalist egotists needs to end and sooner rather than later. I’d much rather the building simply and accurately be called Student Center than have it associated with someone whose behavior had hurt and damaged others. In fortunately, no one in the COW administration seems to have the courage to do that in the name of the , the present, and the future. As a young faculty member, I learned early on that Wooster has long had difficult time being transparent and ethical. Board members are always to willing to lie in your face.

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