In 1995, William H. Cosby Jr., received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Swarthmore College. In November of 2014, accusations of sexual misconduct surrounding Bill Cosby dominated the news, though it was certainly not the first time similar claims had been made. At least 33 women have publicly accused Cosby of some type of sexual misconduct, with many of their stories centering on the use of violence and incapacitating, or ‘date-rape,’ drugs. What ensued was a media circus of epic proportions, lawsuits and countersuits galore, but more than anything, a disheartening lack of answers.
Swarthmore College has issued honorary degrees since 1888, and the list of recipients is prestigious, including Albert Einstein, Eugene M. Lang, Michael Dukakis, Noam Chomsky, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Swarthmore defines some of the criteria for honorary degree recipients as “distinction, leadership, or originality in significant human endeavor … ability, as a commencement speaker, to serve as a role model for graduating seniors.” A degree in humane letters is generally given for achievements in the humanities or in philanthropic work. Cosby is no stranger to honorary doctorates either, as he holds 17 such degrees. Especially given the context of Swarthmore’s recent Title IX history with sexual misconduct, this is an extremely sensitive and difficult issue to discuss. However, to conveniently ignore Cosby’s continued presence on this list merely to avoid a difficult and potentially embarrassing conversation is the easy way out and would be a disservice to the 33 women Cosby allegedly abused, and to all survivors in general.
There is precedence for rescinding an honorary degree, though it is far from a regular occurrence — several notable individuals who have had their honorary degrees (or offer of an honorary degree) rescinded include Lance Armstrong, Robert Mugabe, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As recently as last year, Brandeis University became embroiled in a controversy when it offered an honorary degree to controversial activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali — an offer it eventually withdrew. Mr. Cosby’s honorary degrees have been the subject of great controversy at other schools from which he has received them, including at Yale University and Boston University.
In December, The Daily Free Press reported that a Boston University spokesman said via email, “At this point, we are monitoring the legal developments surrounding Mr. Cosby very closely.” At Yale, an online petition to rescind Cosby’s degrees received several hundred signatures within a couple of days, according to the Yale Daily News. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, was non-committal discussing the issue, saying merely that the idea warranted “serious consideration.” Finally, at Cosby’s alma mater Temple University, he resigned his position as a trustee following a similar petition that received signatories into the thousands, a position he had held for over thirty years, the Associated Press reported.
The stories told by these women are, simply put, horrifying. For a number of reasons, It is unlikely that Cosby will ever be prosecuted in any of these cases, but prosecutors appear to be most commonly dissuaded by the statutes of limitations and the difficulty of collecting evidence years later. In a legal setting, Cosby has to be considered innocent until proven guilty. However, this same standard does not, and should not, apply to his honorary degrees. The United States judicial system is in place to make judgments on the legality of actions, not on the character of individuals.
The bottom line here is that, at the very least, this is an issue that warrants a significant amount of discussion. At the very least, Cosby’s degree casts a pall over an otherwise impeccable list. On a practical level, it’s unlikely that Cosby would be personally punished by losing his Swarthmore degree; bestowing the degree in the first place was emblematic, and serves little to no real purpose. Rescinding Cosby’s honorary degrees would, however, send a strong message to both victims and perpetrators of sexual assault. Honorary degree recipients should be looked upon as role models and leaders, and Cosby, regardless of legal guilt and of past accomplishments, has become irrevocably tied to accusations of behaviors that are certainly not those of a role model.
“If we had to sit around and wait for courts to make basic judgments about people, society would collapse onto itself,” wrote The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Cosby situation. Allowing Mr. Cosby to hold onto his Swarthmore degree because of lack of legal guilt sends a message, just as rescinding it would. This not only diminishes the value of such a degree, but could be seen as an implicit pardoning of such actions. At the very least this issue deserves earnest reflection, a process of which I am confident this community is capable.