Cut Notre Dame’s ties to Bill Cosby
Letter to the Editor | Friday, January 15, 2016
In 1990, Notre Dame gave Bill Cosby an honorary degree. While giving a lecture on campus, Cosby asked All-American defensive lineman Dean Brown to reveal his GPA in front of the crowd. When Brown said he had a 2.5, Mr. Cosby angrily responded that a “2.5 is OK if you have a mental disorder. You should be ashamed of yourself. You should have worked harder.” Brown began to cry and told Mr. Cosby, “I worked hard. I did my best…” Mr. Cosby cut him off, saying, “You didn’t do enough.”
Twenty-five years later, Bill Cosby lost his status as “America’s Dad” after nearly 60 sexual assault accusations and a 2005 deposition confessing to using strong, now-illegal sedatives to drug women.
Prior to his fall into notoriety, Mr. Cosby amassed almost 60 honorary degrees, including the one from Notre Dame. These universities now face a complex situation and a serious question — what should we do when an honorary degree recipient turns out to be thoroughly dishonorable? To date, 23 universities have rescinded Mr. Cosby’s degree, and 20 more are expected to follow suit. Several others have refused to comment. A stubborn few have stated they will not rescind.
Notre Dame is one of them, although you may have missed the University’s announcement last September. No campus publications reported our administration’s statement, released quietly on a Friday before a home football game. Whatever the intended effect, the result was that even students, faculty and administrators who follow the University’s actions closely were largely unaware of the decision.
Our VP of Communications, Paul Browne, issued the statement on September 26, 2015. Five days before, Browne told “shame on you” at a FOX 28 reporter who asked Father Jenkins a question about campus sexual assault at a press conference. Those are inconvenient optics, but the problem is not so much the messenger as the message itself. The statement said it is not our practice to rescind degrees “in the absence of criteria applicable retroactively to all.” It then provides the comforting reassurance that the University would not have given Mr. Cosby the award had they known what is now public. The statement goes on to assert that in light of “the pervasive silence that … allow[s] offenders to escape responsibility,” we now “recommit ourselves to doing all we can to prevent sexual assault.”
This recommitment apparently does not extend to revoking Mr. Cosby’s degree and to sending an unambiguous message that sexual assault will not be tolerated. Now that approximately 40 of the 60 universities either have rescinded or are working to rescind Bill Cosby’s degrees, Notre Dame stands in the minority and in the wrong.
The University is concerned with precedent. But a lack of precedent at Notre Dame should not deter us from decisive action. Other universities have rescinded degrees before (such as those of Robert Mugabe and Kaiser Wilhelm II) and without incident. Even if precedent were at issue, it’s unclear why a precedent that cements old ties to rapists is worth upholding, or what possible benefit we derive from continuing a relationship — no matter how distanced — with a man who committed such terrible crimes. We see no problem with taking firm positions on what is and is not acceptable from a person honored by a Notre Dame degree. As for criteria “applicable retroactively to all,” we suggest the following: If the reasons for which a person received an honorary degree are undermined by the emergence of new information, then we can consider revoking the degree.
Fortunately, other Catholic schools like Marquette and Fordham are leading the way. Marquette Provost (and former Notre Dame Associate Provost) Dan Myers rescinded Cosby’s Marquette degree just a day before Notre Dame issued its own statement. Fordham’s president said: “As a Jesuit university, Fordham could no longer stand behind the degree it had bestowed upon Mr. Cosby.” If it goes against other schools’ Catholic morals to allow Cosby to keep his degrees, why is it not against our Catholic morals as well?
The majority of schools have held very public discussions surrounding Mr. Cosby’s degree. Haverford College asked its students, “How and why are degrees awarded, and how and why could they, or should they, be rescinded?” Before Notre Dame made its decision, all members of our community — students, staff, and faculty — should have had the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue on these questions. As Myers said in Marquette’s announcement, a Catholic university “challeng[es] students to integrate knowledge and faith into their real-life decisions.” How are we supposed to do the same if we are never invited to the “grown ups’ table” to help make these decisions?
When debating Bill Cosby’s degree revocation, we must take stock of the message we send to sexual assault survivors at Notre Dame. Currently it’s the wrong one. Keeping Mr. Cosby’s degree sends a message we’re embarrassed to be associated with. As a University we decry the “pervasive silence” surrounding sexual assault, but chose not to inconvenience ourselves when given an opportunity to speak out.
In the last week, George Washington University reversed its previous decision to keep Mr. Cosby’s degree. President Steven Knapp wrote an open letter saying that after discussing the issue with students, including sexual assault survivors, he decided that a lack of precedent was not a sufficient reason to retain Mr. Cosby’s university honor.
Notre Dame can and should do the same. It is not too late for Notre Dame to make up for the opportunity it missed. Acknowledge that we made a mistake. Open a conversation. Release another press statement revoking an honor Mr. Cosby can no longer claim to deserve.
class of 2015
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.