22 years ago, world famous comedian and actor Bill Cosby gave a commencement speech at the College of William and Mary and received an honorary degree. Today, Cosby faces allegations of sexual assault or rape from over 40 women. Their accusations span four decades. However, provost Michael R. Halleran has said that the College does not intend to rescind his degree, given that they have never done so before.
The College may not have a mechanism for rescinding honorary degrees, but that’s a weak reason for ignoring the allegations against Cosby. The excuse, then, seems purely bureaucratic, which appears at best ignorant and at worst cowardly; the College should at least provide a substantive reason. And even though the College has never rescinded an honorary degree, other universities have found a way. The University of Pennsylvania rescinded Kaiser Wilhelm’s honorary degree in 1918 for his role in World War I. In 2008 the University of Massachusetts rescinded President Robert Mugabe’s honorary degree in response to decades of human rights violations. Imagine if either school had used the same reasoning as the College to avoid rescinding those degrees — how would we view them then?
So far, none of the 23 universities who gave Cosby honorary degrees have rescinded them, but the United States Navy revoked his status of honorary petty officer last year. Their justification stated that the “allegations against Mr. Cosby are very serious and are in conflict with the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment.” Of course, an honorary position in the Navy and an honorary degree are two different things, but how different are our values from the Navy’s?
Number seven in the College’s Code of Ethics states, “Treat other people with dignity and respect, ensuring there is no discrimination or harassment at William and Mary.”
The College’s sexual misconduct policy states under the heading of “purpose,” the following: “Our community of trust requires that its members treat one another with respect, dignity, and fairness.”
Honorary degree recipients may not be bound by the same rules that students are, but they should still be held to a high standard. The College has awarded honorary degrees to many incredible people, including Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and civil rights leader John Robert Lewis. To ignore Cosby’s allegations and not seriously consider rescinding his degree is to cheapen the degrees of those more representative of the College’s values.
The College should not be faulted for granting Cosby an honorary degree in 1993, as it did not have the information it has now. Rescinding his application in light of over 40 women accusing him of sexual assault — crimes that would have led to his expulsion at the College — would demonstrate that the College stands with survivors and that its honorary degrees are contingent on recipients treating others with dignity and respect.