Will These 23 Colleges Ever Punish Bill Cosby?
Serial (alleged) rapist and comedian/father figure Bill Cosby has a huge number of awards and major honors to his name. He can still cling to his Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honor, Twain Prize, and a Bob Hope Humanitarian Award bestowed upon him by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
But over the past months of revelations and mounting sexual-assault and drugging allegations, the one-time Dr. Huxtable has seen some of his accolades stripped away. Last year, the Navy nixed Cosby’s title of honorary chief petty officer, and more recently Cosby has lost a Disney statue and a mural in North Philadelphia.
However, Cosby still maintains an obscene number of honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country—and some critics have been asking whether it’s time for schools to start rescinding those honors.
A few colleges have already severed ties with the embattled comic in other ways. Earlier this month, Spelman College announced that it had officially ended a professorship tied to Cosby shortly after The New York Times and AP reported on a decade-old deposition detailing how Cosby would coerce women into sex acts with drugs and fame. (Camille and Bill Cosby donated $20 million to Spelman College in the ’80s.) Berklee College of Music, Temple University, High Point University, and Cosby’s alma mater UMass Amherst have similarly cut ties.
Fordham University is one of the many schools that has given Cosby an honorary doctorate. The school has previously addressed this issue, doubling down on its position. “To the best of my knowledge, Fordham has never rescinded an honorary degree,” Senior Director of Communications Robert Howe told The Argus in April. Fordham also has a Cosby-linked certificate program at its Graduate School of Education. When asked if the university plans to suspend or end the program, Howe told The Daily Beast that, “we’re in discussion about this right now. That’s all I can say at the moment.”
Over the years, Cosby has received honorary degrees from Oberlin College, Bennett College, Marquette University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Carnegie Mellon, Baylor University, Drew University, Haverford College, Colgate University, University of Cincinnati, University of Southern California, Swarthmore College, University of Connecticut, Wesleyan University, William & Mary, Paine College, West Chester University (which offers a scholarship created by Cosby to honor a dead relative), and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (which honored him as one of three “outstanding Americans”).
These schools did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment regarding whether or not there had been renewed discussion about revoking Cosby’s honorary degree, in light of recent developments and the abundance of allegations. The colleges that did respond did not come down definitively either way.
A spokesman for Boston University (who told Boston magazine in May that the school was “monitoring the legal developments surrounding Mr. Cosby closely”) told The Daily Beast that there is “nothing [new] to report” this week.
A spokeswoman for Yale (where students have petitioned the university to rescind Cosby’s degree) wrote in an email simply that “the University has not rescinded the degree.” (She did not address questions regarding whether or not there was discussion of potentially doing so in the future.)
In 2003, Sisseton Wahpeton College presented Cosby with its first-ever honorary degree. Right now, there are no plans to revoke it. “I think very few people are even aware that he did get an honorary degree [from us], I was just checking with my staff here,” Harvey DuMarce, president of the college, told The Daily Beast. “People just forgot about it. We’re a small Native American college. We’re way out here in South Dakota—very isolated.”
As for the University of Pennsylvania (who also featured Cosby as a commencement speaker in 1997, years after he received his honorary degree), things are quiet on this front. “At this time, we have nothing to offer,” a spokesman wrote back.
For many schools, it can be difficult to rescind an honorary degree, even in extreme cases. Some colleges have a policy to never revoke honorary degrees, and sometimes the bar is set so high for revocation that it takes an extraordinarily odious figure or wartime adversary to make the cut. For instance, murderous and racist Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe was stripped of his honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts in 2008. (Mugabe received the honor in 1986, back when the university believed that he “appeared to be a force for positive change in Africa.”) In 1918, University of Pennsylvania trustees scrubbed from its records the honorary degree awarded to Germany’s Kaiser because, well, World War I happened.
But now, with Cosby potentially facing yet another deposition (this time in a lawsuit by a woman who alleges he assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 1974, when she was just 15 years old), it might be time for certain colleges and universities to consider the symbolic value of acting on these claims.
“Rescinding these degrees would send a message that a university or college has a greater obligation to rape victims than to rape perpetrators,” Jonathan Beecher Field, a professor of English at Clemson University, wrote at Inside Higher Ed. “Rescinding these degrees would send a message to rape survivors on these campuses that presidents and trustees hear their voices. Taking away these honors from Cosby offers an opportunity for American higher education to take rape seriously.”
— With additional reporting by Alexa Corse.