Recent sexual assault allegations surrounding comedian Bill Cosby have prompted the two-dozen schools that have bestowed him with honorary degrees, including the College of William and Mary, to consider rescinding these honors.
Cosby received an honorary degree from the College in 1993, and it has not been revoked. The comedian also served as the commencement speaker that same year. Every year, the College names a select few individuals to be the recipient of honorary degrees, one of whom is the commencement speaker.
That year Cosby was selected through a process that involved a few administrative and student-operated bodies. The recipients are determined through the Honorary Degrees Advisory Committee, which is composed of faculty members and students in the junior class. The students work together to create a list of people they would like to speak at commencement.
“The junior class leaders then have a few months to compile their list of recommended speakers, then send us a list of their top 10 recommendations. In turn, we forward the list to the Provost,” Assistant to the Vice President and Chief of Staff Gregory Henderson said in an email.
Alexandria Foster ’15 served as the president of her class and, as such, participated in the student advisory board. She stated that her year’s student advisory board submitted some bids for famous authors, as well as for Bill Lawrence ‘90, the creator of the television show Scrubs. She noted that most of their ideal speakers were unrealistic options due to their level of fame.
“A lot of them were definitely a stretch,” Foster said. “I really liked being part of that process. It was nice to have a say.”
After looking at the Advisory Committee’s compilation, Provost Michael R. Halleran then sends the list to President Taylor Reveley. Anyone at the College can make a recommendation to the President, who consults with the Rector before sending the recommendations to the Board of Visitors, who makes the ultimate decision on the honorary degree recipients.
Halleran noted that, year after year, students cast the same bids for certain people to come to the College to speak.
“[They are] people who you would be proud to see represent [the College],” Halleran said. “People often want Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, J.K. Rowling and those are hard to get. I’d love to see J.K. Rowling speak.”
Although many choices are unfeasible, Cosby, celebrated for his television program The Cosby Show, was able to come to the College in 1993. Recently, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that almost 50 women have accused Cosby of sexual abuse; some of these cases date back to the 1950s.
Cosby’s actions have prompted a few schools to revoke the honorary degrees they have given him over the years. Halleran noted that schools with a close connection to Cosby are the ones who have sought the most distance from him. For example, Cosby’s alma mater Temple University has disassociated with the comedian, forcing him to resign from their school board. The College does not have the same ties with Cosby.
“We’ve never rescinded a degree. We don’t intend to,” Halleran said “It’s very messy what would be the criteria [for removal]. We gave it to him in ’93. Rescinding I don’t think is a good option.”