Some schools revoke honorary degrees given to Cosby

NEW YORK • Every spring for decades, a similar scene played out at colleges across the United States: Students picked up their degrees - and Bill Cosby stood alongside them.

Schools wanted the popular, education-embracing comedian to give their commencement address and he routinely showed up, often in a school sweatshirt, offering high-fives, hugs and homespun advice.

In exchange, universities and colleges gave him honorary degrees in education, public service and law.

Few people in American history have been recognised by universities as often as Cosby, whose publicist once estimated he had collected more than 100 honorary degrees. The New York Times, in a quick search,found nearly 60.

But dozens of women have come forward recently to accuse him of sexual assault.

In the latest case against him on Tuesday, 25-year-old model Chloe Goins filed a lawsuit, alleging he sexually assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion in 2008.

Colleges are now confronting the question of what to do when someone who has been honoured falls from grace.

Some are sticking with long- standing policies that prohibit the revocation of such awards. Some are still debating what to do. And others are rescinding his degrees.

Fordham, Marquette, Brown and the University of San Francisco said they were revoking the honours they bestowed on Cosby.

In a statement, Brown president Christina Paxson said: "It has become clear, by his own admission in legal depositions that became public this summer, that Cosby has engaged in conduct with women that is contrary to the values of Brown and the qualities for which he was honoured by the university in 1985."

But Yale is among the schools that have taken no action, even in the face of an online petition to strike the award given in 2003. It said in a statement that it had never rescinded an honorary degree.

Some schools say they do not want to condemn in the court of public opinion a man who has never been found guilty in a court of law or even charged with a crime.

Cosby has denied all wrongdoing.

"We give out honorary degrees based on what we know at the time," said Ms Kimberly Alexander, vice-president for institutional advancement at Talladega College in Alabama, where Cosby was honoured in 1992, "and at the time, he was everybody's favourite dad".

Others are grappling with what to do, including Ohio State University, which bestowed its award on Cosby in 2001; John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City (1995); University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2003) and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Typically, the schools honoured him for his success as an entertainer, support for education and espousal of the sort of bootstraps perseverance that would serve young graduates well.

Schools began distancing themselves from him months ago, including his alma mater, Temple University, which accepted his resignation from the board last December, and Spelman College, a historically black women's college in Atlanta that last July ended a professorship endowed by him.

He is far from the first to have held on to his award despite subsequent intense criticism.

DePauw University in Indiana has not rescinded the honorary degree it awarded Richard Nixon in 1957, years before his role in Watergate as the US president.

Morehouse College in Atlanta has similarly not rescinded a 1983 honorary degree it gave Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, who has a much criticised record on human rights.

But as many schools point out, honorary degrees are not Nobel Prizes. And many college students today are often barely familiar with past honorees. That is certainly true of Cosby, who received some of his awards decades ago.

"We're not even thinking about Bill Cosby," said Ms Edwina Harris Hamby, vice-president for institutional advancement at Fisk University.

"Most of the students now don't even know who he is unless they look at Netflix or something like that." NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Some schools revoke honorary degrees given to Cosby'. Print Edition | Subscribe