Two Degrees of Trump

One of the universities that rescinded an honorary degree from Bill Cosby is being urged to consider doing the same for Donald Trump.

February 10, 2016

Of the more than 20 universities that rescinded Bill Cosby’s honorary degrees last year, Lehigh University was one of the first. Now, a professor there wants the university to consider revoking the degree of another one of its honorees: Donald Trump.

“Obviously, I’m not a fan of Mr. Trump’s,” said Richard Weisman, professor of hydraulic, civil and environmental engineering at Lehigh. Late last year, two things happened. First, Weisman heard on NPR that another university, Robert Gordon University in Scotland, revoked the degree it had awarded the Republican presidential candidate for “statements that are wholly incompatible with the ethos and values of the university.”

And, around that time, he remembers seeing a group of students rally in solidarity with the student protesters at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

“It was one of these typical student demonstrations,” Weisman said. “The students were saying, ‘We have to talk about these issues, we have to discuss these things,’ and then everybody leaves and nobody talks about the issues.”

So in order to spark more discussion, and because Trump’s statements put him firmly at odds with the stated values of the university, Weisman said he encouraged a number of groups on campus, including the Honorary Degrees Committee and the graduate and undergraduate senates, to look into the issue.

Lehigh awarded Trump an honorary degree in 1988, the year after it awarded one to Bill Cosby. In introducing Trump during the commencement ceremony that year, the president at the time, Peter Likins, called Trump a “symbol of our age -- all the daring and energy that the word ‘tycoon’ conjures up. His boldness of vision and the splendor of his buildings … are like a designer label on the skyline of New York,” The Morning Call reported.

More recently, Donald Trump has attracted widespread criticism over the course of his campaign (and prior to it) for a series of statements and policy positions that many find reprehensible. In December, Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States, and during the campaign he has made numerous statements viewed as sexist or anti-immigrant.

According to principles laid out by the university’s Council for Equity and Community, Weisman noted, “we confront and reject discrimination in all its forms.”

“I think we should stand by that,” Weisman said. And now that the university has rescinded Cosby’s degree, there is precedent. “People will say, ‘Oh, no, they’re so different,’” he said. "I’m not sure they’re so different. … They already rescinded Bill Cosby’s, and he hasn’t been convicted of a crime.”

Almost 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault and rape. Although he has not been convicted, Cosby was recently charged with three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault for an incident involving a former Temple University employee.

Most of the universities that opted to rescind his degrees did so before any charges had been brought. Many, including Lehigh, pointed directly to court documents unsealed last year in which Cosby describes giving drugs to women before having sex, though he maintains the encounters were consensual.

“In sworn deposition testimony, Mr. Cosby admitted under oath to behavior that is antithetical to the values of Lehigh University and inconsistent with the character and high standards that honorary degree recipients are expected to exemplify,” reads last year’s announcement from the university.

“We see it as a very extraordinary situation in the case of Cosby because under oath he admitted to behavior that is really not in line, to put it mildly, with the values of the university,” said Lori Friedman, Lehigh’s director of media relations. “We don’t feel like there’s a relationship” between that and Trump’s degree, “since one is a professor bringing the idea, and now it’s just a discussion.”

"At this time, the board doesn't have plans to rescind," Friedman said. However, “We feel like this is what a university is about,” she said. “Having the freedom to say what you feel and discuss ideas.”


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