As sexual misconduct allegations surface, colleges rethink process of giving honorary degrees

Students, faculty, and outside critics are calling on colleges and universities to rescind honors to notable figures accused of sexual misconduct in recent weeks, a process often not governed by any formal policy.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
Bill Cosby speaks at his alma mater Temple University in in Philadelphia in 2011. Sexual misconduct allegations against notable figures, including Mr. Cosby, have colleges rethinking how to give and rescind honorary degrees.

The wave of sexual allegations from Hollywood to Washington has left many US colleges weighing whether to revoke honorary degrees and other accolades awarded to prominent men accused of misconduct.

Dozens of schools have bestowed honors upon men who now face accusations ranging from sexual harassment to assault. Fired news anchor Charlie Rose has at least nine honorary degrees, for example, and Pixar executive John Lasseter has two.

Some schools have already started cutting ties, including the University at Buffalo, which rescinded a 2001 honorary degree awarded to film mogul and alumnus Harvey Weinstein. The University of Kansas and Arizona State recently pulled two journalism awards from Mr. Rose, citing allegations of groping and inappropriate behavior from several women.

But other schools have yet to decide the fate of similar symbolic accolades, which are often given to honor success but have increasingly been withdrawn when recipients fall from grace.

"It's an issue that more colleges are facing now, and I think each one will look very carefully at these situations and make their own determination," said Timothy McDonough, a vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Three schools – North Carolina State, New York's Oswego State, and New Jersey's Montclair State – are all reconsidering honorary degrees given to Rose before he was fired from CBS and PBS on Nov. 21.

The final decision at North Carolina State and Oswego State will be made by their governing boards, which traditionally hold the power to confer and rescind degrees. Oswego State officials said Thursday that they have started the process to revoke Rose's 2014 honorary degree.

"These are credible allegations of predatory sexual harassment that completely conflict with the core values of our institution and significantly degrade the achievements that were the basis for awarding him an honorary degree," university President Deborah Stanley said.

Some others, however, are standing behind similar commendations.

The Juilliard School in New York, which gave an honorary doctorate to actor Kevin Spacey in 2000, said it does not rescind such honors. Spokeswoman Alexandra Day said the degrees are granted "based on information known about the artist at the time of the award."

Only hours after NBC host Matt Lauer was fired on Wednesday, some alumni of Ohio University (OU), his alma mater, were calling on officials to scrub his legacy from the school. University officials said they were "disappointed to hear of Matt Lauer's alleged conduct" but have no policy to revoke a 1999 Medal of Merit awarded to him.

After another prominent OU alumnus, Fox News founder Roger Ailes, was accused of sexual harassment, the university decided last year to take his name off a campus newsroom and return a $500,000 gift.

Georgetown University declined to comment on an honorary degree given to Rose in 2015 but said the school has never revoked one.

Mr. McDonough, of the governing boards association, said it's rare for schools to rescind honors but that more are likely to do so following the recent rash of allegations. At many schools, it's a question of whether the recipient's alleged actions come into significant conflict with the university's ideals, he said.

Efforts to strip honors have come from students, faculty, administrators, and outside critics. More than 20 schools have rescinded honorary degrees given to comedian Bill Cosby, accused by dozens of women of various kinds of sexual misconduct including assault, amid pressure from students and staff. The few that have not rescinded honors from Mr. Cosby include Temple University, his alma mater.

Student newspapers at North Carolina State and Duke University recently published editorials saying Rose should be stripped of honors from the schools. Officials at Duke, where Rose studied and received an honorary doctorate in 2016, declined to respond specifically to the Rose case but said the school has never revoked any of the hundreds of honorary degrees conferred since the 1920s.

Universities vary widely in their policies for granting honorary degrees, and even more so in their rules for revoking them. Many are given to prominent figures who speak on campus or to notable alumni. Governing boards often take recommendations from the president and discuss the matter in private sessions to avoid public scrutiny.

Marist College, a private school in New York, has faced calls to rescind a 2001 honorary degree given to alumnus and former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly over allegations of harassment, but the school has no formal policy for giving or rescinding awards. Spokeswoman Julia Fishman said the governing board recently started the process to craft one.

Robert O'Neil, a former president at the University of Virginia, said honorary degrees are supposed to honor professional achievement but often have other motivations.

"In many cases, it's just to recognize a wealthy donor," Mr. O'Neil told the AP. "I think the eclectic or haphazard process at some institutions risks creating a very bad precedent."

Tax records show that some recently accused men have donated to the schools that honored them. Rose contributed at least $9,500 to Duke through his foundation between 2013 and 2015, records show, while O'Reilly gave $25,000 to Marist in that period, along with a $1 million donation to start a scholarship program.

Many universities declined to comment on honors given to embroiled men, including Clark Atlanta University, which gave an honorary doctorate to Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, in May, and the Savannah College of Art and Design, which conferred one to Mr. Lasseter in 2015.

Some schools, however, have long shunned the practice of awarding honorary degrees. The University of Virginia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology forbid it, with policies that stem from the teachings of Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes disparaged all degrees as "meaningless credentials."

O'Neil said other schools may need to adopt similar policies to avoid embarrassment in the future, while others will likely be more selective when choosing recipients.

"I expect that the whole process will be much tidier and much more conscientious going forward," he said. "They don't want to make any mistakes now."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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