What Cosby Scandal Teaches Us

The rescinding by various colleges of Bill Cosby's honorary degrees, says Karen Gross, leads us to a much broader question: Under what specific circumstances should an honorary degree be revoked?

January 14, 2016

Revocation of an honorary degree has risen to the forefront again, occasioned by the recent arrest of Bill Cosby for sexual assault in Pennsylvania in a case for which the statute of limitations has not yet expired. In his lifetime, Cosby has received somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 honorary degrees, and three dozen higher education institutions have not, as of now, rescinded them.

It is high time these colleges and universities did so. If ever an easy case for degree revocation existed, this is it. Indeed, within the last few days, George Washington University rescinded the degree it awarded Cosby, reversing an earlier stand on this issue. That said, the fundamental issues go beyond Cosby and beg for us to answer a much broader question: Under what specific circumstances should an honorary degree be revoked?

I appreciate the difficulty some individuals -- as distinguished from institutions -- may be having with dropping the proverbial hammer on Cosby. He was, for many, an icon -- a mentor and role model to celebrities and noncelebs alike. He broke new ground in terms of race relations, and he had remarkable talent as a comedian. Indeed, I suspect that many people believed he was the character he played on television in the '80s and '90s: the high-minded father Dr. Cliff Huxtable.

Yet however hard it is for us as individuals, institutions of higher learning have deeper and wider obligations to their students, faculty members, administrators and alumni. Institutional leaders need to speak up and out -- as the victims of Cosby have -- about his serial sexual assaults. And revocation of an honorary degree does just that: it signals that the awarding institution will not sanction this egregious behavior. As we enter 2016, now would be a good time to clean up old messes and send forth a message on and off campuses that serial sexual predators are not deserving of our highest institutional accolade.

Most institutions do not have established clear rules or guidelines about honorary degree rescission. The Cosby case creates an opportunity to provide institutional guidance for possible future and less clear-cut -- and thus thornier -- situations.

This subject is especially complex in today’s campus climate. Hot topics continue to proliferate on campuses, including concerns over campus sexual assaults and campus culture, the increase in student protests over racial and ethnic discrimination, claims of First Amendment violations when speakers who disagree with prevailing student norms are disinvited from or silenced on campus, and critiques of political correctness as a way of masking students who are privileged and coddled.

Given the problems with the Cosby situation, it seems wise indeed to craft a written solution for when an honorary degree can and should be revoked and the process that is required to make that happen wisely. That would fill an existing void and facilitate action in the rare case in which it is needed. Developing such a document or documents, however, is easier said than done. We must be cautious about setting criteria that are so broad that almost any honorary degree can be withdrawn in a changed or changing political environment. Yet, if we are too specific and target the criteria to fit Bill Cosby or a Cosby-like situation, we are not providing solutions for situations down the road. In some ways, the dilemmas here resemble the question of whether named buildings, murals and statutes of individuals who were honored in their time but were slave owners or robber barons or misogynists (among other things) should be eradicated.

The criteria also raise the issue of governance. Who should decide whether an honorary degree should be withdrawn and by what voting margin (simple majority or supermajority)? What role, if any, should the president or chancellor play in recommending or championing a degree rescission? What role can and should faculty members and current or graduated students play? Trustees or members of a governing board?

Then there are issues surrounding the timing of the deeds leading to a rescission decision. Are the causes related to events before or after the actual honorary degree was awarded? Does an honorary degree confer ongoing obligations for the recipient, or it is an award for past deeds and actions?

And what about the larger looming question: how to ensure that the criteria do not limit the selection of honorary degree recipients to only those with whose ideology or actions we agree -- philosophically, politically or morally.

Here are my recommendations, appreciating that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work and that campuses need to craft language that is consistent with their own institutional culture and governance protocols.

  • Within the honorary degree, as it is written and as it is ultimately read when conferred, the recipient should be awarded the degree with “all the appertaining rights, privileges of and obligations to” the awarding institution. By adding the word “obligations” to the award itself, colleges and universities are each signaling that with the degree come not only benefits but also ongoing duties. And those duties would include the recipient having acted and continuing to act in ways that are legally and morally consistent with the societal and campus norms. In many cases now, the word “obligations” is absent.
  • Consider this language: “The Board of Trustees, upon motion of a trustee, the faculty and/or staff senate or student body president [wording would be adjusted to reflect actual governance structure in place at a given institution and how the awarding process functions], shall revoke an honorary degree by a two-thirds vote of trustees if it is determined that the action(s) or inaction(s) of the honorary degree recipient are or were so egregious that they violate existing state and federal law and/or the rules and guidelines governing the behavior of students, faculty and staff at [the institution] as reflected in the campus handbook [or other applicable document] as now exists or may hereinafter exist.

It is my hope that these suggestions will spur campuses to add this or similar language to whatever documents govern their procedures for awarding and rescinding degrees. Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new section in any applicable institutional documents related to honorary degrees that reference both the language to be used within the degree itself and the criteria upon which a degree can be rescinded.

It is the expectation that recession of an honorary degree will be a rare and will occur only in circumstances that truly reflect that the recipient’s actions or inactions are so contrary to established legal and social norms that the degree is no longer merited and does a disservice to the integrity of this institution and its stakeholders. Honorary degree recipients will be notified in writing of the institution’s decision to revoke their previously awarded degree.

The best way to test out the language that I’ve suggested is to plug in the names of people to whom this might apply -- now or down the road. What about degrees awarded or to be awarded to former President Bill Clinton or former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton? Eliot Spitzer or Richard Nixon? Tom Brady or Pete Rose? David Irving or Arthur Butz? Cardinal Law, Bishop Eddie Long or Rabbi Barry Freundel?

We in higher education can and should ask which of these people merited or might merit in the future an honorary degree. To be sure, that is another topic, but it is a worthy line of inquiry. And we can rightfully ask whether such individuals violated the law and/or have been prosecuted civilly or criminally or reached an out-of-court settlement. We can consider whether we object to their beliefs or to their conduct in the past or on a go-forward basis (for those still living).

I get that we are on a slippery slope. I get that we may differ as to whether a particular individual’s conduct warrants the granting or revocation of an honorary degree. But each institution needs to set boundaries and know where it stands because the issue of degree rescission will not disappear over time. While the Bill Cosby case may be clear to many of us, the next one may be far less so. We should prepare now to deal as effectively as we can with what the future has in store.


Karen Gross is a former president of Southern Vermont College and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.


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