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Student senate forms subcommittee to discuss Cosby’s honorary degree

| Thursday, February 18, 2016

At Wednesday night’s student Senate meeting, junior Grace Watkins asked the group for help in facilitating dialogue on the honorary degree conferred by the University to Bill Cosby in 1990. 

Badin Hall Senator sophomore Alex Fincher yielded the floor to Watkins, her constituent, who said in the past several months, several of the University’s peer institutions have chosen to rescind honorary degrees given to Cosby in light of several dozen allegations of sexual assault that have come against him in the past year.

“The great majority of Christian universities have chosen to rescind,” Watkins said. “Catholic universities like Marquette and Fordham have issued statements saying that it was inconsistent with their Catholic morals to continue to let him have this honorary degree. We are one of roughly six universities that have said we wouldn’t rescind.” 

In a statement to the South Bend Tribune in September, University spokesperson Paul Browne said there was no precedent at Notre Dame for rescinding an honorary degree and that the University would not rescind Cosby’s.

Watkins said she hoped Senate could help foster dialogue about the issue on campus.

“There are different ways that Senate could act on this issue,” Watkins said. “ … There should be more discussions about what it means to give an honorary degree, especially a Catholic honorary degree, and who is deserving of holding it. There is also the stronger push to ask the administration to revoke the degree.

“He admitted to drugging women with strong sedatives, explicitly in order to have sex with them. That is already a clear violation of how our University defines consent. … The way I think of it is that it should be intuitively obvious when someone isn’t deserving of a degree anymore, I see that as separate from being controversial.”

Junior Louis Bertolotti, executive director of the Student Union Board (SUB) and non-voting member of Senate, said calling for the University to revoke the honorary degree could have ramifications in the cases of other honorary degrees, as well.

“Looking over the list [of people awarded honorary degrees], there’s a lot of political figures,” he said. “If we were to say that Bill Cosby’s actions are not allowed in Catholic character, you could say that Barack Obama’s policies on abortions are not allowed in Catholic character. … If we do go forward with [forming a resolution], we need to set forward a very specific thing that says, ‘This is why,’ we want this.”

Along with Bertolotti and other senators, Director of Constituent Services and St. Edward’s Hall Senator John Kill expressed concern that using the argument that Cosby’s actions disavow Catholic moral character would have far-reaching implications. He suggested drafting a resolution specific to the case at hand.

“My suggestion would be, if we were to pass a resolution … we would have to frame it on the sexual assault Title IX policies,” Kill said. “ … The language would have to be very specific as to why. We should probably dissuade ourselves from any broad moral principles.”

Keenan Hall Senator sophomore Wilson Barrett said he would support a resolution regarding future conferral of honorary degrees.  

“We can also encourage the University to be very careful when we give honorary degrees to in the future,” Barrett said. “We could understand the power that comes with an honorary degree, and what we want to stand for.”

After the discussion, the senate passed a motion to form a committee of volunteers to look into the issue. 

Also at Wednesday night’s meeting, student union treasurer, senior Jane Goodson, nominated Mason Shinn for the position for the next term. The treasurer’s responsibilities include overseeing the budget of the student union, running the Financial Management Board and allocating funds to the different branches of student government.

“[Shinn] has been one of my assistants all year long,” Goodson said. “He has done a great job taking notes, being present, being involved.”

Kill proceeded to present on the second periodic report of the student government online forum, Onward.

The report includes ideas, previous efforts, possible approaches to solving the problem, any updates, points of contacts and project timelines, according to Kill.

According to the report, the top three ideas are re-evaluating restaurants in LaFortune, improving Wi-Fi on the quads and adding berries in the dining halls, which are all in various stages of ideation, consideration and implementation.

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