Bill Cosby was conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his commitment to philanthropy and education in May of 1996 during the University’s 120th commencement ceremony. The University confirmed this week that even amid recent controversy surrounding numerous sexual assault allegations that have been levied against him, Cosby’s honorary degree from Boston College will not be rescinded, citing that it is not school policy to rescind degrees, whether awarded for academic or honorary reasons. Of the over 60 honorary degrees that Cosby has received from other higher institutions, several have already been revoked, most notably by Fordham and Marquette—other prominent Jesuit institutions.
Honorary degrees do not hold as high of a merit as an academic degree, but they still represent an affiliation with the University. While Cosby’s prominence as an advocate for higher education and philanthropy (not to mention his fame) at the time made him a popular choice as a speaker in 1996—and subsequently an honorary degree recipient—the recent allegations against him would seem to call for the University to distance itself from the public figure.
In a vacuum, an outright rejection of Cosby would make sense. But the complications associated with rescinding Cosby’s award are difficult to navigate. To rescind any one degree would call into question every other honorary degree ever awarded—given the sheer number of degrees bestowed for over 100 years, it would be hard to believe that every recipient has been blameless. For the University to put time and money toward this kind of housekeeping could be a challenge, especially considering the subjectivity and inadequate information in making such assessments. Likewise, although there is seemingly plenty of evidence to indict Cosby, none of the allegations, as of yet, has been proven in a court of law. To rescind the award now would be making a decision based on public sentiment, and while, in this case, that public sentiment is highly justified, there is no legal basis for an institutional response at this point.
For the University to sit silently on this information, however, would be inappropriate. Given the proliferation of sexual assault on college campuses, it is prudent for BC to comment regarding its past affiliation with a prominent alleged offender. While an outright revocation of the honorary degree has complications making such action more controversial than purposeful at this point, BC’s maintaining an unqualified 1996 endorsement of Cosby robs the University of both its agency and moral standing.
We would like to believe a degree from BC is a lifelong commitment. Given the actions of other Jesuit universities, and Cosby’s status as a public figure, the University’s silence on the case itself is to be taken as a display of indifference. If Cosby is found guilty in a court of law, the burden of not disavowing his affiliation with this University falls on all of us.
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