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Observer Editorial: Time to debate Cosby’s degree

| Friday, February 19, 2016

In May, about 2,000 undergraduate students will process into Notre Dame Stadium and receive their diplomas. A handful of others — leaders in their fields and communities — will receive honorary degrees alongside them.

Bill Cosby was one of 12 individuals awarded an honorary degree at the University’s commencement ceremony almost 26 years ago. The comedian and actor has received nearly 60 honorary degrees throughout his career.

However, since several dozen allegations of sexual assault arose beginning in late 2014 and the subsequent release of a deposition in which Cosby admitted to drugging women prior to having sex with them, more than a third of the institutions that chose to honor Cosby have rescinded his degrees.

Several universities Notre Dame considers its peers, including Brown University, Boston University and Catholic universities Fordham and Marquette, have rescinded Cosby’s degree.

Notre Dame has not and has said it will not rescind Cosby’s honorary degree.

“As it does with all candidates for honorary degrees, Notre Dame weighed carefully the information in the public record on Bill Cosby before he was accorded the honor 25 years ago,” University vice president for media relations Paul Browne said in an email to The Observer. “Had the kind of deeply disturbing allegations surfaced then that that have been made since, Notre Dame wouldn’t have considered awarding the degree. However, it is not the practice of the University to rescind an honorary degree previously awarded to individuals for achievements recognized at those times and, in the absence of criteria applicable retroactively to all, we have no plans to do so now in his case alone.”

University President Emeritus Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy was at the helm of the University when Cosby received his honorary degree in 1990. In an email to The Observer this past fall, Malloy said, “All honorary degrees are awarded in light of the information available at the time. Bill Cosby was honored on such grounds. I have no comment beyond that.”

As an editorial board, we could not reach a consensus as to whether the University should rescind the degree — and if so, whether it should act now or in the future.

However, we all find the lack of any sort of public discussion on the topic troubling.

Student senate formed a subcommittee Wednesday night to address and debate the situation, and prior to that, junior Grace Watkins and alumnus Alex Caton submitted a Letter to the Editor calling for the University to rescind the degree.

Aside from that, however, public student and administration engagement with the issue has been extremely limited. While the University administration has remained largely silent outside of formal statements, so too has the student body failed to take action and demand a voice in this discussion.

There should be a discussion. In our experience, this is an issue people care about, even if they have not been vocal about it. That’s not to say there’s a right or wrong answer. Clearly there are well-reasoned arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, but we have to talk about it. We have to acknowledge our ties to a person from whom our peer institutions have chosen to disassociate, and we have to ask ourselves whether we should be doing the same.

The answer may be no, but it does not suffice to repeat over and over again that, because we have not done something before, we will never do it in the future. This University has gone against precedent before and certainly will again. Up until 1972, Notre Dame had no precedent for admitting women.

This debate will be uncomfortable. It will require a discussion of what an honorary degree means and to what extent we hold our honorary degree recipients accountable for information that becomes available retroactively. It will require us to examine to what moral standard we hold those degree recipients, because by his own admission, Cosby has engaged in behaviors that would have almost certainly led to his permanent dismissal were he a student.

As an intellectual community and a Catholic one, we have an obligation to talk about what makes us uncomfortable. More than 1,000 individuals hold honorary degrees from the University. Revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary degree makes every single one of those degrees vulnerable to revocation.

Setting the precedent of revoking degrees based on retrospective morality would open up the discussion of what kinds of moral transgressions are acceptable for honorary degree recipients and what kinds of moral transgressions are not.

We implore the University administration and students to allow the entire Notre Dame community — students, administrators, faculty, staff, alumni and all other members — to engage on where we go next, on whether or not we want to associate ourselves with Bill Cosby and whether now is the time to meaningfully set precedent or follow it.

Other schools, when grappling with the issue of whether or not to revoke Cosby’s honorary degree, have fostered open dialogue and debate with great success. George Washington University initially refused to rescind Cosby’s degree, citing precedent reasons almost identical to Notre Dame’s. However, after the University’s president, Steven Knapp, continued to discuss the issue with students and colleagues, he decided George Washington would revoke Cosby’s degree.

Perhaps the Notre Dame discussion would follow a similar course, and perhaps it wouldn’t. We will never know though, unless we have this discussion and do so in a thoughtful, respectful way.

For our part, we’re having the discussion. We debated the issue, and we’re asking you to do the same. If need be, we’re more than happy to be the forum through which the debate beings. We welcome any Letters to the Editor on the topic.

If we are to create any meaningful debate of this issue, we must demand a voice in the discussion.

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  • Johnny Whichard

    If we take away Cosby’s, we should take away Obama’s, too. All of the rape victims in “Sanctuary Cities” would agree.

    • Get your facts straight, or in this case “right”, on “sanctuary cities” and who is actually “responsible” for them before regurgitating Heritage Foundation/Tea Party effluvia. xoxoxo, rebecca

      • Johnny Whichard

        Please provide at least one tiny nugget that even hints that I’m “wrong”.

        • Steven Jessen-Howard

          To start, look at this survey conducted by the American Immigration Council: http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/special-reports/criminalization-immigration-united-states
          “For more than a century, innumerable studies have confirmed two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both legal immigrants and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education. In other words, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not “criminals” by any commonly accepted definition of the term. For this reason, harsh immigration policies are not effective in fighting crime.”

          • Johnny Whichard

            Oh please….

            How would you feel if your rapist was set free because they were an illegal immigrant? It’s an issue of American sovereignty and justice for its own citizens. Americans come first…

          • According to the Department of Justice’s 2012-2013 Crime Victimization Survey, 49.2 % of all violent crimes were committed by Caucasian-Amricans, followed by 22.4 % for African-Americans and 14.8 % for Hispanic-Americans. In looking at the races of offender and victim, Hispanics were victims of Hispanic-on-Hispanic crime 38.6 % of the time while Hispanic-on Caucasian crime the figure was 11.9 %. Interestingly, Caucasian-on-Hispanic crime, the figure was 21.7 %, nearly double than that of Hispanic-on-Caucasian crime.

            So it would seem that Caucasians – presumably legal citizens, “sovereignty and justice” loving patriots – are twice as likely to commit a violent crime against Hispanics than Hispanics are to Caucasians.

            Curious what real data and statistics, and not fear and rhetoric, reveal.

          • Johnny Whichard

            You’re making this an issue about race. I am not. Do you actually understand the points I’m making? Or do you respond before you read things?

        • Steven Jessen-Howard
  • To the Editorial Staff: Have you-all seen the movies “Spotlight”, “The Verdict”, “Silkwood”?

    Do you know our Catholic Church’s position during the Holocaust?

    “Debate”, “Dialogue”, “Discussion” = Cowardice. Complicity. Ig-nor-ance.

    “Had the kind of deeply disturbing allegations surfaced then that that have been made since, Notre Dame wouldn’t have considered awarding the degree. However, it is not the practice of the University to rescind an honorary degree previously awarded to individuals for achievements recognized at those times and, in the absence of criteria applicable retroactively to all, we have no plans to do so now in his case alone.”

    So, if a child molester/wife beater/ponzi-scheming sub-prime mortgage hedge-fund troll was awarded an honorary degree 60, 40, 10 years ago, that degree wouldn’t be rescinded now?

    Do you see, My Future Alums, the point?

    Think hard. REAL hard. And follow the dots.

    Then, and only then, if you-all come to the same conclusion as you’ve expressed here, then Okay.

    If not, then you-all know what you need to do.