Boston University revokes Bill Cosby's honorary degree. Should others join?

BU is the latest of around a dozen schools to rescind Bill Cosby's honorary degrees in light of a wave of sexual assault allegations, one more issue forcing universities today to confront tensions between proven truth, present-day values, and popular opinion. 

Evan Vucci/ AP/ File
Bill Cosby pauses during a news conference in November 2014. Boston University is the latest school to revoke an honorary degree for the entertainer in the wake of dozens of assault allegations.

On Tuesday, Boston University became the latest of around a dozen schools to rescind Bill Cosby's honorary degrees in light of a wave of sexual assault allegations.

But while honorary degrees' meaning for their recipients is simple – publicity, and a pat on the back — the decision to revoke one poses thornier questions for campuses dealing with their own tensions around sexual assault.

Dr. Cosby's "treatment of women has brought significant and lasting discredit upon himself and is inconsistent with the University’s mission and values," the Boston University Board of Trustees wrote in a community letter, announcing that the Board was revoking Cosby's honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree that the school awarded in May 2014. (However, Cosby earned an actual doctorate, in education, from the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s.)

Allegations against Cosby have circulated for years, but gained little public attention until comedian Hannibal Buress called him a rapist in a filmed act that now has more than half a million views. The comedian accused him of hypocrisy for embracing a role as a moral exemplar and, in "The Cosby Show," a feel-good family guy. In total, roughly 50 women have accused Cosby of assaulting them.

Since then, roughly a dozen schools have rescinded their honorary degrees: Fordham University, Marquette University, Tufts University, and several more. But that's just a small percentage of Cosby's total: his spokesman once guessed he'd earned more than 100, although the real number seems closer to 60.

"The honorary doctorate — that's lovely, he enjoys getting them,'' David Brokaw told The New York Times in 1999. ''But what's important to him is getting the podium so he can can say something profound and funny to the students and their parents."

That's what Cosby did at BU's School of Education in May 2013, telling graduates "to find that next Bill Cosby," referring to his own originally less-than-stellar school days. 

The decision to revoke would likely be easier if Cosby were officially charged with rape or assault, but that's not the case, despite dozens of allegations. In many cases, the amount of time since the alleged attacks bars women from bringing him to court. On Monday, his legal team filed a countersuit against seven accusers, saying that their claims are false and amount to defamation and "intentional infliction of emotional distress." 

This July, however, the Associated Press won access to documents from a lawsuit against Cosby, filed by a former Temple University employee who settled the case in 2006. In testimony under oath, Cosby admitted to giving Benadryl pills and Quaaludes, a sleep aid-turned-party drug, to women he hoped to have sex with. However, he says that the women took the pills voluntarily. 

Many of his accusers say they were plied with drugs or alcohol before he allegedly assaulted or raped them.

Schools who revoke Cosby's degrees often cite their condemnation of sexual assault, now a front-burner issue for dozens of schools accused of not doing enough to protect their own rape survivors, accused rapists, or both.

A quick dissociation might satisfy some critics of so-called campus rape culture, many of whom believe colleges should take disciplinary action against the accused, and protect victims, even when survivors do not file legal charges. Some organizations have urged universities not to "convict" accused rapists before the legal system does, imposing penalties like expulsion or simply not clearing the student's name, as was the case at Columbia University last year.

But in an era of heightened awareness of "date rape" and acquaintance assault – the reason some believe Cosby's accusers are now being listened to, years after allegations first emerged — many schools say they feel a need to protect student survivors, regardless of their decision to file legal charges. Meeting those women's needs can prove difficult, if not impossible, to balance with the presumed innocence of those accused of rape, who say that their schools are de facto convicting them: an academic punishment like expulsion, for example, will prompt questions for years, particularly from potential employers. 

In the Cosby case, most schools seem to be watching and waiting for further proof, or for the publicity buzz to pass.

It's prompted some to reflect on the purpose of an honorary degree (aside from feel-good press, and often-hefty donations from honorees): to applaud the recipient's accomplishments known at the time of the award, which makes revoking one highly unusual, or simply off-limits. 

In response to inquiries from Vulture, a New York magazine spinoff, Boston College, George Washington, Haverford, Pepperdine, William & Mary, Notre Dame, Wesleyan, and Yale all replied that, although they might find Cosby's actions reprehensible, they do not revoke honorary degrees.

"What good would it do to void Mr. Cosby’s diploma?" former George Washington president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg asked in an op-ed in the University's student paper. "There is a rough charm to the proposal that we should recall our degree from Mr. Cosby, but it is a blunt instrument that does not do real justice to the dreadful challenge it seeks to address." 

Mr. Trachtenberg implied that revoking Cosby's degree was unnecessary, saying the entertainer is "revealed and reviled."

"I am not keen on trying to rewrite history," he wrote. "We must own our past and learn from it." 

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