From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Michael S. Pettersen)
Subject: recent homophobic events at College of Wooster
Date: 21 Aug 95 14:44:22 -0400
I suggest that we circulate the enclosed article, and give them
the negative publicity they were so eager to avoid.
Mike Pettersen, Otterbein College
Perfect love casteth out fear.
[The following article is reproduced without permission from the Chronicle
of Higher Education, Aug. 4, 1995.]
Public Job, Private Life
Wooster's president-to-be bows out amid talk of relationship with a woman
By Courtney Leatherman
TRUSTEES of the College of Wooster called Susanne Woods "the best
president for the college" when they hired her in April. Two months
later, they balked after learning details about her long-term relationship
with a woman, sources say. The day before she was to take office, Ms.
Woods withdrew instead.
Both Wooster and Ms. Woods say the reason for their parting had to do
with disagreements over the role of the presidency. They have signed a
confidentiality agreement and have refused to discuss the matter. But
knowledgeable sources say the real reason she didn't take office had to
do with her personal life. No other explanations for her withdrawal
have been offered.
A source familiar with the search, who requested anonymity, says that
when the trustees hired Ms. Woods for the job in April, they did not
know, or did not fully understand, the nature of her relationship with
Anne Shaver. Colleagues say Ms. Woods is a very private person
who does not describe herself as a lesbian or discuss her sexual
But Ms. Shaver, an English professor at Denison University, does
identify herself as a lesbian. In the Denison campus telephone
directory, she lists Ms. Woods as her partner. The two have attended
campus functions together at Denison. They own property together,
and some of Ms. Woods's colleagues at Franklin and Marshall College,
where she served as vice-president for academic affairs and dean of the
college until June 30, describe them as partners.
A NUANCED SITUATION
Some academics were angered by the possibility that homophobia
played a role in Wooster's change of heart about Ms. Woods. Academe
"gives up such wonderful people because of bigotry," says Rhonda R.
Rivera, an emeritus professor of law at the Ohio State University. A
lesbian and an expert on legal issues involving gays and lesbians, she
notes that few, if any, college presidents are openly gay.
Wooster "probably wanted to avoid negative publicity," she says. "And
now they're going to get it."
Others suggest, however, that no college's trustees would have been
entirely comfortable with a situation as delicately nuanced, and
potentially difficult, as Ms. Woods's.
Wooster sought out Ms. Woods because she has a reputation as a
strong administrator and a committed scholar. The 16-member search
committee first contacted her last fall, when it began looking for a
successor to Henry Copeland. But she declined to become a candidate.
In February, the committee contacted her again when they decided to
expand the pool of candidates. This time Ms. Woods agreed to be
considered for the post.
Some members of the search committee believe that in offering her the
job, the panel moved too fast, and without knowing enough about her.
Nonetheless, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, when her
appointment was announced, John C. Dowd, a trustee and chairman of
the search committee, said: "Our goal was to find the best president
for the College of Wooster... and we have achieved our goal." Mr.
Dowd did not return telephone calls.
After Ms. Woods's appointment in April, some information about her
relationship with Ms. Shaver began making its way to the Wooster
campus. The Denison phone directory somehow began circulating
among professors at Wooster.
AN ANONYMOUS LETTER
Then Ren Edwards, a lesbian professor at nearby Kenyon College,
wrote an open letter in the spring edition of Kenyon's literary journal.
She urged Kenyon's new president, Robert A. Oden, Jr., to work
closely with female presidents of Ohio in institutions, including
"Wooster's newly appointed president, lesbian Suzanne (sic) Woods."
(Ms. Woods had been on the short list for the Kenyon presidency, too.)
At some point after Ms. Woods's hiring, these details were passed on
to Wooster's trustees. A few of them also received an anonymous letter
that called Ms. Woods a lesbian, the sources say.
A few trustees then met with Ms. Woods and asked her about the
references in the Denison directory and the Kenyon journal, one source
says. It's not clear what agreements, if any, were reached during that
On June 20, Wooster's trustees were informed in a memorandum that
there was to be a telephone conference nine days later "for the sole
purpose of acting on matters pertaining to the contract with Susanne
'AN INEVITABLE OUTCOME'
Some of the trustees say now that they had no idea what was to be
discussed during that conference call and were shocked to learn that
Ms. Woods was withdrawing from the presidency, which she was to
have assumed on July 1. "By the 29th, it seemed it had become an
inevitable outcome for both sides," says John Compton, a professor at
Vanderbilt University and a trustee at Wooster who served on the
search committee. He refuses to discuss the reasons for Ms. Woods's
withdrawal but says he was, and continues to be, "deeply impressed
with her." He calls the situation "a loss for the institution and for Dr.
While some sources say Ms. Woods was candid with Wooster's
trustees about her relationship with Ms. Shaver, other sources say she
wasn't. Because of the semantics of sexual identity, both sides could
Some sources maintain that Ms. Woods did alert a few trustees on the
search committee to her personal life, though the sources say she did
not characterize her ties to Ms. Shaver as a lesbian relationship.
Several professors on the search committee say Ms. Woods's sexual
orientation was never discussed during the committee meetings.
And it shouldn't have been, according to Thomas M. Falkner, a
professor of classical studies who served on the search committee.
After Ms. Woods withdrew, Mr. Falkner wrote to the board declining
to participate in the continuing search for a president. Among other
reasons, Mr. Falkner said he was distressed by reports that issues of
"personal lifestyle and sexual orientation" may have played a part in the
board's disagreement with Ms. Woods.
MEMORANDUM TO ALUMNI
Ms. Woods's withdrawal as president-elect came on June 30. In a
statement issued by Wooster, Ms. Woods announced "with deep
regret" her decision to withdraw. Her rationale, the statement said,
was that "significant differences concerning the role of the president
had become apparent between her and Wooster's Board of Trustees,
and that these differences could not be mutually resolved."
In a memorandum to alumni, Stanley C. Gault, Wooster's board
chairman, said that while he was "disappointed" that Ms. Woods and
the board could not resolve their differences, "I am convinced that this
decision has been made in the best interests of both Dr. Woods and the
Franklin and Marshall also issued a press release on June 30,
supporting Ms. Woods. In it, Richard Kneedler, the president, and
William E. Seachrist, the college's board chairman, lauded her for her
In an interview, Ms. Woods refused to respond to what she called
"rumors." "The truth is in the press release," she said. "We thought
we had a good fit. The more the board talked about the presidency and
what I was happy doing, the more we realized we had a different sense
of this. We all acted in good faith."
When asked whether she had told the search committee and the board
about her relationship with Ms. Shaver, she said, "The information is
Ms. Woods plans to take a year- long sabbatical from Franklin and
Marshall. She will spend the yea at the Brown University Women
Writers Project, which she founded during her 19-year tenure as an
English professor there.
Professors and administrators at Wooster, even those on the search
committee, are still reeling from the news of her withdrawal. So are
many people at Denison, Kenyon, and Franklin and Marshall.
Carolyn A Durham, a professor of French and coordinator of women's
studies at Wooster, says she was "shocked and dismayed" by the news.
"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, John Phillips, a private consultant who worked with
Wooster on its presidential search, praised the college for its
thoroughness in defining the role and responsibilities of the next
president before the search began. He won't discuss whether Ms.
Woods revealed details of her private life during the search. (Wooster
professors were angry from the start that the search committee was
using a "headhunter" who had persuaded the college to make the
process more confidential than past searches had been.)
"I think some people were aware that she was saying in her own way
that she may have a little different life style," says Ron Hustwit, a
professor who was a member of the search committee for much of the
search. He dropped out for a while and later rejoined the process. "I
think some people picked up on this, and some people didn't." He says
he thought he knewwhat Ms. Woods meant when she described herself
as "unmarried by choice."
Nancy Grace, head of Wooster's English department, says: "There
was a fair amount of speculation when she was appointed that perhaps
she was gay. But I thought, 'If she is, fine; if she isn't, fine.'"
"I wasn't thinking about her as gay or lesbian," Ms. Grace adds. "I
was thinking, 'Wow, this person is extremely qualified. I'm glad they
She and Ms. Durham, the women's studies coordinator, have written
Wooster's trustees demanding a further explanation of Ms. Woods's
One source says some trustees did consider the possibility that Ms.
Woods was a lesbian and asked her about it privately. They thought
they understood her to say that she was not a lesbian, the source says,
adding that board members may have felt that she had misled them.
For Ms. Durham, that's not the point. "I don't think the private life
of any professional is anyone's business," she says. "But it seems to me
the search committee had a reponsibility, from the moment that they
knew that she was not married, to think of any number of possibilities,
and to decide at a much earlier point if they were willing to pursue that
"They didn't need to know or not know" if Ms. Woods is a lesbian.
What they needed to decide Ms. Durham says, is, Can we handle it if
the president is?
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