UMass accounting professor removed from classes until end of semester for ‘offensive’ extra credit videos

Videos featured a parody from German movie ‘Downfall’ and song ‘Bust Down Thotiana’

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Catherine West Lowry, also known by “Cat” or “Cathy,” has worked for the University of Massachusetts since 2006 and is a well-known professor synonymous with the UMass accounting department. Her class, “Accounting 221: Principles of Financial Accounting,” is a requirement for all students in the Isenberg School of Management and enrolls about 400 students each semester, meaning Lowry has taught thousands of Isenberg students in her time at UMass over the past 13 years.

However, controversy arose late this semester following Lowry’s screening of two past examples of successful extra credit videos made for her class by former students, which were recently shown to her current fall 2019 class. The videos, one of which was made in 2009, were seen as “offensive” by some students, according to UMass News & Media Relations. As a result, Lowry was asked to step away from her classes for the rest of the semester.

According to current Accounting 221 students Anthony DeMayo, an operations and information management sophomore, and Victoria Palumbo, a marketing sophomore, Lowry offers an extra credit video contest in which students organize subject matter from the class, usually in the form of parody music videos and film scenes, which are then shown to the class at the end of the semester and ranked by students. The most extra credit points go to the top videos. Lowry has offered the extra credit opportunity for at least a decade.

DeMayo cited opportunities like the extra credit as evidence of how much Lowry “cares deeply about her students” and will give them opportunities to do well in the class. DeMayo went as far to say “I feel like more than anything, she’s like the face of the accounting department” and added that Lowry is “really good at trying to make accounting…as bearable as it can be for what the material is.”

Palumbo explained the videos are “largely for entertainment purposes” and meant for the amusement of the class at the end of the semester.

However, the screening of two of these videos, both of which were examples of videos that earned high rankings, has since landed Lowry in hot water after a seemingly anonymous report of the incident to the Isenberg administration.

The first video, generally deemed by students interviewed by the Collegian as the less serious offense of the two, is a parody made by a group of male students of the song “Bust Down Thotiana,” which according to Palumbo was taken down because it was allegedly “derogatory towards women,” but stated this interpretation could merely be based off the song chosen for parody. The video has since been pulled offline.

The more serious video in question was a parody made in 2009 by five of Lowry’s then-students of the 2004 German movie, “Downfall” (“Der Untergang” in German), which was nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005, about the final days of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in a Berlin bunker at the end of WWII.

In a scene from the movie, which was heavily parodied a decade ago according a New York Times parody-making how-to guide, Hitler goes off on an anger-induced tirade at Nazi officials in German. The scene proved fodder for parody memes, with many dubbing and subtitling the scene in English, among other languages.

The Accounting 221 video included a particular line which said, “Don’t you dare finish that sentence or I’ll send you to a chamber. And it won’t be the chamber of commerce. I can guarantee that,” a reference to the Nazi’s use of gas chambers for mass killings.

The Collegian attempted to reach out to the believed five students, now alumni, listed in the video’s credits for comment, but never received a response.

There were students in the class who found this video comical and others who found it offensive, especially considering the Oct. 30 hate crime where five large swastikas were drawn on the Fine Arts Center.

Ed Blaguszewski, executive director of Strategic Communications and special assistant to the Vice Chancellor for University Relations, released a statement on Lowry’s removal.

“Senior Lecturer Catherine Lowry will not teach Accounting 221 for the balance of the fall semester,” Blaguszewski said. “The decision was made by the Isenberg School of Management after it concluded that objectively offensive material had been presented to students. The University is conducting a full review of the matter.”

Lowry emailed an apology to her students on Nov. 14, and Isenberg Dean Anne Massey came to the following class to talk to the students about why the videos were unacceptable. She then informed them that Isenberg Professor Bill Brown would be taking over the class for the rest of the semester. At this point, about a fifth of the 400-person class got up and left the lecture hall while many students remained rowdy for the duration of class according to those interviewed.

Sophomore business management major Ibrahim Akar lived in Melville Hall last year where several hate crimes occurred last semester. Akar was one of the students who left class when the new professor replaced Lowry.

“I personally, I’m not going to say that Professor Lowry was like the best professor, but I just thought it was stupid that they can handle like that situation when it’s clearly a joke [where] there’s no bad intention so quickly, and they just remove her for the rest of the semester,” Akar said. “But like I lived in Melville last year, coincidentally, [and] they had some incidents that occurred last year, and I just did not see nearly the attention that this is receiving.”

Akar has not been back to class since. Additionally, when Lowry sent out an email apologizing, Akar replied all and made his opinions of the situation known. “People are too sensitive, it was clearly not meant to offend anyone,” he wrote.

“It’s her decision to show those things, and it’s not like there is intention of her to degrade the women in her class. If she wants to do that, I feel like she’d be a little more outspoken,” Akar said. He added that Lowry was a “woman herself” and that she likely would have noticed if the Bust Down video was offensive to women.

“Plus, I mean, people vary in how they take offense to things, but it’s clearly a joke. It’s messed up. Sure. Some people might think it’s really messed up, some people might not think is messed up at all. At the end of the day, there’s no intention to hurt people. And like it’s evident, it’s clear.”

When asked what he expects from the administration, Akar said, “I really just want them to show more affection. I feel like they’re just not doing enough. They’re just doing [it because] they want people to think like, oh, we care. But at the end of the day, it’s like you need to really put your foot down, because if you don’t, then it’s just going to keep happening.”

Palumbo and DeMayo largely defended Lowry’s character. They admitted showing the videos in the classroom environment could be seen as “poor taste,” but also stressed Lowry’s intentions were never to be offensive or cause harm. They also indicated there has never been any prior incident to make them question Lowry as a person or in her profession before this controversy.

“I mean, most people I’ve talked to would say that it was like blowing it totally out of proportion. I had posted on my Instagram story like about something that The Black Sheep UMass had posted,” Palumbo explained. “And someone who was in the class who actually was Jewish, was talking to me and was saying how even he thought it was totally out of line to pull her from position, and he didn’t think it was a big deal.”

“Though I don’t think that she should have shown this video, I think the action taken by the Isenberg administration and response was abysmal and far reaching beyond what it should have been,” DeMayo said.

Palumbo and DeMayo were also critical of the Dean’s handling of the situation when she intervened in their classroom on Nov. 19. Massey was reached for comment on the matter by the Daily Collegian, but declined and referred reporters to Blaguszewski.

“[Massey] claimed the videos were ‘not inclusive’ and that they didn’t offer, in her words, I think it was, ‘everyone a seat at the table,’ which I understand where she’s coming from,” DeMayo said. “This is sensitive material. However, Professor Lowry is probably one of the professors that I’ve had at UMass so far who values inclusion more than any other professor here.”

The pair pointed toward Lowry’s advocacy for the Inclusive Leadership Summit, an event which “brings industry partners, alumni, students, faculty, staff and community leaders together to share best practices, industry trends and concerns related to diversity and inclusion in business,” according to the School of Management’s website.

“It almost got annoying, listening to her for the first 20 minutes of every class begging us to go to the Inclusive Leadership Summit,” Palumbo said.

“Clearly this meant a lot to her and not a single one of my [other] professors ever mentioned a single thing about it,” DeMayo added. “And even when she addresses our class, she catches herself when she says, ‘Hey guys,’ and tries to find another alternative, so she’ll start saying like, ‘Hey folks,’ like, ‘Hey, y’all,’ like just trying to make an effort.”

They also pointed to what they said is a mischaracterization of Lowry on the part of Massey when she spoke to their class. Palumbo alleges that Massey spoke in a “derogatory tone” about Lowry. “That was almost more offensive to me than the video itself, just how derogatory she was being towards our professor.”

“It’s so strange how she’s being put in this light as someone who is ‘insensitive,’ when that’s so not the case,” Palumbo noted. “Like it makes me angry that that’s how [the administration’s] trying to make her look.”

Both Palumbo and DeMayo hope Lowry’s career will not be affected down the line should she be reinstated to her teaching position in Spring 2020. Currently in Spire, the UMass online directory, Lowry is still listed as the professor for the 400-person class for next semester.

Though the two did note that for them, Lowry’s name disappeared as their professor in the Spire system and when they attempted to reach her via email, they discovered her account had been deactivated. They noted this swift response by administration occurred within roughly 24 hours.

“I wanted to send her an email actually just privately to apologize. Like, just, just as a human being, I just wanted to tell her that I was sorry for what happened and I couldn’t,” Palumbo said. “They’ve gotten rid of her so quickly and it feels really weird.”

The Collegian attempted to reach Lowry but did not receive a response to a request for comment by email or alternative means of contact. In her apology email, which Lowry’s students forwarded to the Collegian, she expressed her regret for showing the video in class.

“I want to apologize to any student who was offended by the Hitler [extra credit] video on Tuesday. My intent was never to offend or upset anyone. I was unaware of what was going on on campus,” Lowry wrote to the class. “While I’ve received hundreds of wonderful, thoughtful, creative videos over the past 11 years, this issue, along with an earlier issue this semester, has caused the end of these extra credit videos.”

“I truly am sorry, and I have never wanted to offend or hurt any of my students. Your success and happiness is most important to me,” she concluded.

Junior hospitality and tourism management major Zoë Bangert was a student in Accounting 221 in the Spring of 2019.

“Overall as a concept I loved the extra credit videos, mine personally placed 4th when I took the class,” Bangert said. “However the Hitler video which she has played for years definitely crossed a line and was not only inappropriate, but also offensive especially with the anti-Semitism we have seen on this campus in the past few years.”

“It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see how that video may not be appropriate to play in a lecture hall just in that it features Hitler and Nazis, never mind some of the offensive jokes that were made.”

“The Bust Down video was also not appropriate,” Bangert continued. “I know Cathy claims that she didn’t know what ‘bust down’ meant, but clearly dancing on a table while students throw money at you insinuates something, and a simple Google search would have enlightened her prior to her sharing that with an entire lecture hall. A lot of the issues that popped up with these videos were not deep and hidden, they were very apparent and with a little thought, it is clear that these crossed a line.”

When Bangert was asked about Lowry’s removal, she felt the video warranted “some sort of action.”

“…it is appropriate for her to take a semester or so off,” she said. However, Bangert did note Lowry’s work with the summit, saying, “Cat is the leader of the diversity and inclusivity summit and clearly takes these issues to heart. I believe that it is an oversight on her part to have shown these videos, but it does not detract from her ability to teach. I think that she just needs to reevaluate and then it is fair for her to return to the course.”

Cassie McGrath can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @cassiemcgrath_. Chris McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ChrisMcLJournal. Irina Costache can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @irinaacostache.