Commencement speakers often walk away with honorary degrees from the colleges they address. With some 5,000 colleges out there, that means a lot of honorary degrees are floating around. Rarely, however, despite scandals aplenty in the worlds of politics, business and celebrity, are those degrees ever rescinded. But in recent weeks, a dozen colleges broke that norm and rescinded honorary degrees they had awarded Bill Cosby.
The push started in September, when Fordham and Marquette Universities both revoked degrees they had awarded the comedian and actor. Both colleges are Jesuit, both explained that Cosby had, by his own admission, acted contrary to their values, and both noted they had never taken a step like that before.
That was last month. Now, with the recent announcement from Springfield College, the number of colleges to revoke a Cosby degree has grown to 12, and at least 15 more say they are informally discussing or officially considering (via board vote) doing the same.
Although allegations of sexual assault against Cosby stretch back more than a decade, colleges and universities began to cut ties with him in the last year as more and more women, now numbering more than 50, publicly accused the comedian of drugging and raping them. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Cosby’s alma mater, asked him to step down as co-chairman of the college’s fund-raising campaign in November 2014, and he resigned from the Board of Trustees at Temple University later that year.
Honorary degrees, of which Cosby had accrued at least 60, are the latest and perhaps last arena where universities are still mulling their relationship with the man. Colleges that have opted to revoke his degree say the conduct he has admitted to, let alone the allegations underpinning several ongoing civil lawsuits, contradicts the values and qualities those degrees are meant to celebrate.
“By his own admission,” wrote Michael Lovell and Daniel Myers, president and provost of Marquette University, in a letter to the campus community, “Mr. Cosby engaged in behaviors that go entirely against our university’s mission and the guiding values we have worked so hard to instill on our campus.”
In a deposition made public last July, Cosby admitted to drugging women before sex, though he maintains those encounters were consensual.
Some colleges have said they won't rescind the degrees they awarded Cosby.
“While we are shocked and disturbed by the allegations against Mr. Cosby, honorary degrees are conferred at a moment in time, based on what the university knows about the honoree at that time,” George Washington University said in a statement. “It has never been the university’s practice to rescind an honorary degree.”
The College of William and Mary and Talladega University also mentioned that degrees are awarded without the benefit of hindsight in explaining why they decided not to rescind. Other institutions -- Boston College, Pepperdine University and Wesleyan University -- said explicitly that they have a policy not to rescind honorary degrees.
“While the recent allegations against him are reprehensible, as a matter of policy Boston College does not rescind honorary degrees,” said a Boston College spokesman, Jack Dunn.
And still more colleges -- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University and Yale University -- said they do not have a mechanism for rescinding degrees or historically have not done so.
At George Washington, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a former president, published an op-ed in the student newspaper arguing against rescinding Cosby’s degree.
“What good would it do to void Mr. Cosby’s diploma?” he wrote. “Who actually celebrates it today? He is revealed and reviled. I am not keen on trying to rewrite history …. Mr. Cosby knows that we no longer esteem him. Everybody knows. He is down. He is out. The degree is as null and void as it can be. It is self-executing. However much he may deserve it, I am disinclined to kick him again to underscore our own virtue. It’s too easy.”
Colleges that have rescinded his degree, of course, view the issue differently.
“Fordham didn't rescind Mr. Cosby's honorary degree to send him a message,” Bob Howe, a Fordham University spokesman, wrote in an email. “We rescinded the degree to reaffirm to the university community that his actions (alleged and self-described) were inconsistent with Fordham's ethos, mission and traditions. An honorary degree is symbolic, of course; if symbols matter, then so does rescinding the honor.”
Still other colleges, like Delaware State University, may simply have been caught off guard.
“Most, if not all, of the current DSU leadership didn’t even know that an honorary doctorate had been awarded to him at DSU until it became a media subject over the last few weeks,” said Carlos Holmes, a spokesman for Delaware State. “There are relatively few people currently at DSU there were a part of the university in 2001,” when the degree was awarded.
At least for now, the hubbub over Cosby's degrees hasn't spread to other current scandals, even those involving sexual harassment.
The University of Chicago, for example, says it is not reviewing the status of the honorary degree it awarded to Geoffrey Marcy, the astronomy professor who resigned from the University of California at Berkeley after having been found in violation of the college’s sexual harassment policy. The University of Delaware, which also awarded Marcy an honorary degree, declined to comment.
But, short of actively reconsidering past degree recipients, there may be less tangible effects down the line.
“I can’t imagine that as we move forward with this that rescinding the Cosby degree isn’t going to have some influence going forward,” said Paul Adams, vice president for student affairs and chairman of the honorary degree committee at Wilkes University, which recently rescinded the degree it awarded Cosby in 2004. “We’re looking more and more at our alums” as potential honorees, he said, “instead of going to more of a celebrity, we’re trying to go for people who are more relatable to our students.”
And although there was no formal re-examination of past degree recipients, Adams said, he did look through that list himself. Luckily, everyone seemed to check out.
These are the colleges that have rescinded Cosby's degrees:
- Amherst College
- Baylor University
- Brown University
- Fordham University
- Franklin & Marshall College
- Goucher College
- Springfield College
- Tufts University
- University of San Francisco
- Wilkes University
These are the colleges that are considering rescinding Cosby's degrees, either formally or informally:
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Colgate University
- Drew University
- Fashion Institute of Technology
- Haverford College
- John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- New York University
- North Carolina A&T State University
- Oberlin College
- Ohio State University
- Paine College
- University of Connecticut
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Pittsburgh
- West Chester University
These colleges also awarded degrees to Cosby, but either declined or did not respond to requests for comment:
- Berklee College of Music
- Bryant College
- Colby College
- Cooper Union
- Dillard State University
- Drexel University
- Hampton University
- Howard University
- Johns Hopkins University
- Northwestern University
- Old Dominion University
- Rust College
- Sisseton Wahpeton College
- University of Cincinnati
- University of Pennsylvania
- University of South Carolina