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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to drugging women prior to having sex with them, more than a third of the institutions that chose to honor Cosby have rescinded his degrees.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its peers, including Brown University, Boston University and Catholic universities Fordham and Marquette, have rescinded Cosby’s degree.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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