Boston College will not rescind an honorary degree conferred to Bill Cosby, the University confirmed this week amid recent controversy surrounding numerous sexual assault allegations raised against him.
Cosby crossed the stage at Alumni Stadium in May of 1996, at the University’s 120th commencement ceremony. Cosby was conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his commitment to education, according to a 1996 issue of The Heights.
Colleges and universities across the country have been forced to reconsider honors awarded to Cosby, who has amassed upward of 60 honorary degrees from higher institutions, according to the New York Times. Cosby’s role as an iconic American patriarch on the ubiquitous The Cosby Show, as well as his advocacy for education, made him a popular choice as a commencement speaker for many decades.
Sexual assault allegations made against Cosby have led to his defacement as an honorable figure in the public sphere, forcing the 60 universities who presented a degree to Cosby to reexamine the merits of the honorary degree recipient.
The public controversy surrounding Cosby began last fall, when numerous women came forward to allege instances of rape and sexual assault against the public figure. This controversy was further exacerbated this July, when excerpts from Cosby’s deposition in a 2005 case were made public—excerpts in which Cosby reveals, by his own admission, the administering of Quaaludes to women with whom he wanted to have sex. This spurred more women—both young and old—to make public similar allegations against Cosby. In the July cover story of New York magazine, 35 women came forward to speak out against Cosby, all sharing similar stories of sexual violence at the hand of a shared aggressor.
Despite the numerous allegations made against him, Cosby has yet to be formally charged as a criminal in a court of law, and continues to deny accusations of sexual assault. While many of the cases against Cosby happened too long ago to allow for court proceedings, a civil lawsuit against him is still moving forward, though his deposition in the case will not be released until December, according to the New York Times.
Universities remain divided about the appropriate protocol in dealing with Cosby’s honorary degrees, as some are choosing to revoke honors, others—like BC—are choosing to uphold honorary degrees, and still others are remaining silent altogether on the issue.
According to the New York Times, Fordham, Marquette, and Brown University have all revoked honorary degrees conferred to Cosby. Fordham and Marquette are both Jesuit universities.
In a statement released to the Marquette student body in September, the university president and provost claimed Cosby’s behavior to be inconsistent with the university’s mission, thus forcing them to revoke honors.
“By his own admission, 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,” the statement reads.
Several other institutions, such as Notre Dame, Northwestern, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University, have chosen to uphold honorary degrees despite the controversy. University Spokesperson Jack Dunn said that BC will not rescind Cosby’s degree, on the basis of University policy that the University is not to rescind a degree, whether it was awarded for academic or honorary reasons. The University has never before rescinded an honorary degree, Dunn said.
“Honorary degrees are awarded to individuals in recognition of their accomplishments at the time of the award,” Dunn said in an email.
In the case of Cosby, the prospect of rescinding honorary degrees conferred to him in light of public controversy evidences growing tensions between the court of public opinion and the court of law. As Cosby has not yet been formally convicted, a university’s decision to revoke an honorary degree signifies a public rebuke of character, or a statement on a university’s stance, rather than a reaction to a legitimate legal proceeding.
“Trial by media is no alternative to the rational processes embedded in the law. Those rational processes of justice may be seen to be upheld by BC in this instance, despite the allegations and the pressure to join a rush to judgment.”
Marcus Breen, visiting faculty in the communication department and director of the media laboratory, notes the importance of the court of law in university decision-making in the case of Cosby, where the media has been used strategically to invoke judgment.
“The media is not a courtroom,” Breen said in an email. “It is a site for public discourse, contesting opinions and ‘free speech,’ where truth is not the prevailing criterion. In this sense, media stories about Mr. Cosby are allegations, accusations and claims that are part of the media’s competitive commercial environment, where sensationalism-for-sales often undermines the pursuit of truth.”
In choosing to not withdraw his honorary degree, Breen notes, the University’s decision represents an adherence to and respect of the due process of law for every accused person.
“Trial by media is no alternative to the rational processes embedded in the law,” Breen said. “Those rational processes of justice may be seen to be upheld by BC in this instance, despite the allegations and the pressure to join a rush to judgment.”
Sharlene Hesse-Biber, professor of sociology and director of women’s studies & gender studies program, echoed this sentiment, noting that the upholding of Cosby’s degree does not signify the University’s condoning of his actions—rather, it signifies the upholding of a policy and the recognition of the role Cosby served at that point in time, in 1996.
“Does that mean that Boston College doesn’t care?” Hesse-Biber said. “No, absolutely not. One might say that it [the University] is carefully weighing what it knows right now and maybe—as horrific as that may be—that’s the right decision.”
Hesse-Biber noted that the revocation of Cosby’s honorary degree would necessitate a broader reevaluation of what an honorary degree signifies to a university. For Hesse-Biber, if the University were to revoke Cosby’s degree, it would need to also reexamine the ethical histories of past recipients, and set a precedent for future honorees.
“It’s a question of: Does a university want to be in the business of rescinding and vetting past honorees through time?” Hesse-Biber said. “So, it’s not just about taking his [Cosby’s] away, it’s about the implications of doing that—when you do it for him, and not for someone else.”
For Hesse-Biber, the conversation on Cosby is not final. She called for the University to revisit its stance on the issue should Cosby be tried and convicted of the allegations, and to define, on a larger scale, the meanings imbued within an honorary degree.
“The honorary degree means many things to many people,” Hesse-Biber said. “It means making clear to the candidate, to yourselves, and to your community—when you select someone, and when you confer a degree—the rights, the responsibilities, and the obligations that we impose with it.”
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