In February, the board of the University of the South rejected a request by students to revoke an honorary degree awarded to Charlie Rose in 2016, before reports became public that he sexually harassed many women over a period of years.
Other colleges and universities have revoked honors for Rose, just as many revoked honors for Bill Cosby and others found to have committed sexual harassment or assault. But not Sewanee, as the university is known. The board and administration upset many students not only by declining to revoke the honor but by the language of a statement explaining the decision.
That letter said, in part, "We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men. At the same time, we do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual. In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path. We impose a penalty where appropriate, but we also offer forgiveness. That said, it would be easy to condemn Mr. Rose and rescind the honorary degree. It is harder not to do so. The opportunity to forgive should always be taken. Condemnation has no place here … Clarification comes in the question 'Is there a hierarchy of sin?' Quickly followed by 'Are we all not sinners?' Therein lies the ecumenical rub. If we condemn a person then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?"
Further, Sewanee officials said they had no process to revoke a degree, having never before done so.
The response led to unusually personal protests and detailed theological debates. (Sewanee is owned by 28 dioceses of the Episcopal Church and takes theology and civility seriously.)
This week, the board of Sewanee announced that it had revoked Rose's degree. The board acted after creating a process for such revocations, and after numerous people connected to Sewanee and the Episcopal Church questioned the original response to the call for revoking Rose's degree.
First, the board created a four-step process to revoke degrees: a written request for the revocation of an honorary degree must be submitted to the vice chancellor (the equivalent of president). Then the request must be approved by two-thirds margins by the Joint Regent-Senate Committee on Honorary Degrees, the University Senate and the Board of Regents, in that order. That has now happened.
The votes followed public statements by Episcopal scholars and leaders suggesting that the university's original statements might not have reflected church thinking.
First, eight members of the theology school faculty issued a public letter saying, in fact, there is a hierarchy of sin, and removing an honorary degree would not violate any teachings on forgiveness.
"In church tradition, forgiveness is offered after repentance and contrition," the letter said. "Typically, that means making appropriate restitution to those whom the individual has wronged, and the grace of forgiveness is singularly theirs to offer. What steps Mr. Rose may or may not have taken in this regard are not known to us. But we note that forgiveness does not cancel the serious consequences of sin, nor does it require restoring an individual to the same places of honor that he had held before."
The letter went on to say, "In the School of Theology, we traffic in symbols: we teach the rituals of the church to our students; we teach them to convey the symbolum of faith, the Creed; we form them as priests so that they will know the power of symbols, symbolic action, and symbolic language to those whom they will serve. Withdrawing an honorary degree from a serial sexual offender … would surely never be sufficient. We are grateful for all of the steps to address the malformed sexual culture of this institution that are outlined in your letter. We believe there are more steps to be taken, not least a critical examination of Greek culture on campus. But symbols do matter, and the retention of its honors by one who has behaved in such a scandalous way dishonors this university. Symbols speak: while symbols without matching substance are hollow, symbols convey the deep values of a culture, a people, a university. Allowing Mr. Rose’s degree to stand is its own symbolic declaration of the university’s values."
Then a group of Episcopal bishops wrote an open letter in The Sewanee Purple, the student newspaper, that also disputed the university's original response.
"Mr. Rose steadily ascended the career ladder. However, in his climb to the top of his profession he repeatedly failed to respect the dignity of his female colleagues. By rescinding the degree, Sewanee acknowledges a reality to which we had previously been blind. This would not represent a departure from the Christian practice of forgiveness. Instead, it is a refusal to live in denial," said the bishops' letter.
"What our regents decide in the case of Mr. Rose will have ramifications beyond the boundaries of the Domain [the university's land]. Our nation is newly awakened to the pervasiveness of the harassment of and the violence toward women in the workplace, on campuses, on our streets, and in our homes. By failing to act in this case, the university remains silent in the face of a broader injustice. And to paraphrase Eli Wiesel, silence always benefits the oppressor."