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Observer Editorial: Three years too late

| Monday, April 30, 2018

This past Thursday, University President Fr. John Jenkins issued a statement responding to the conviction of comedian and actor Bill Cosby on three counts of sexual assault. Cosby was awarded an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1990 in recognition of his public accomplishments — he was once known endearingly as “America’s Dad” — but in light of the conviction, the University decided to rescind the degree.

Although rumors of serious sexual misconduct have trailed Cosby since the early 2000s, the accusations did not receive widespread public attention until 2015, when dozens of women came forward to accuse Cosby. In 2015, Cosby was arrested when a judge reopened a case led by plaintiff Andrea Constand — the only accusation to result in an arrest. By April of 2016, more than 50 women had accused Cosby of sexual assault. Last week, a jury found Cosby guilty on three counts of sexual assault in Constand’s case.

Jenkins said in his statement that the University administration based its decision entirely on the verdict. “While certainly troubled by serious, public accusations made by multiple women against him, the University elected to wait until due process had been afforded the accused, and a verdict delivered, before rescinding the honor,” the statement said.

While this Editorial Board wholeheartedly agrees that Cosby’s degree should be revoked, we strongly disagree with how the administration handled this decision. The University should have rescinded Cosby’s degree earlier. By waiting for an official verdict, the administration has made it clear that this decision has very little to do with the actual nature of Cosby’s actions, and everything to do with public perception.

Although it took until 2018 for a jury to hand down a verdict, the fact that Cosby sexually abused women was publicly confirmed as early as 2015. In 2015, in a released deposition from a 2005 civil lawsuit brought against Cosby, the comedian admitted on record to obtaining Quaaludes in the 1970s so that he could drug women he wanted to have sex with — “the same as a person would say have a drink,” was his rationale for using them.

In light of Cosby’s confession under oath, numerous universities — institutions such as Brown, Fordham and Marquette — revoked the honorary degrees they had given to Cosby. Many more universities began discussions about whether or not to rescind the degree.

Many Notre Dame students called for similar action from their own university. In March 2016, Notre Dame’s student senate passed a resolution asking for the University to revoke Cosby’s degree, citing the fact that Cosby’s confession was in direct conflict with du Lac, which prohibits “the illicit redistribution of prescription drugs.”

But Notre Dame stood back and did nothing.

In fact, at the time, Notre Dame refused to even consider revoking the degree. University spokesperson Paul Browne told The Observer in 2016 that while the University would not have awarded the degree if the information had been available at the time, “it is not the practice of the University to rescind an honorary degree previously awarded to individuals for achievements recognized at those times.”

Then, in its statement Thursday, the University implied that it had needed legal confirmation of Cosby’s misconduct in order to rescind the honorary degree. But this confirmation had already been made publicly available in 2015. Even then, there was no doubt that Cosby’s behaviors were in direct conflict with the University’s mission. So why did the University delay?

In spite of concrete facts, Notre Dame stood back as other institutions revoked Cosby’s degrees. Notre Dame then stood back as both its student body and student government called for action. And when Notre Dame finally did act, it stated its rationale was to wait for the facts to be “confirmed.”

Not only is the decision hypocritical, it is disgraceful. We at The Observer see a clear pattern in this case of the University simply looking to do what is most convenient, instead of what is right.

If the University had revoked Cosby’s degree earlier, it would have established a clear, rigorous code of moral conduct for its honorary degree recipients. In particular, the University would have upheld a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence in all forms, one that extends to all members of the Notre Dame community — honorary or not. In joining with its peer institutions, the University would have reinforced its stance that sexual violence anywhere — on its campus or in the mansion of a celebrity — is entirely unacceptable. This would have been a powerful statement.

Instead, the University took a half-step, one which evaded moral responsibility by resting its decision on a legal technicality. This was a safe decision. It simultaneously allowed the University to avoid any potential negative publicity and exempted the University from making a more controversial, yet fairer, moral choice.

The University regards itself as the premier Catholic university in the country, one which aims to be a “force for good” in the world. The University’s website states that Notre Dame “has always stood for values in a world of facts.” But in light of the University’s protracted decision, we at The Observer question whether or not that statement is still the case.

The “world of facts” came to light in 2015. And instead of acting then, the University allowed a fear of public perception to swallow the values it has “always stood for.”

As a result, the right decision came three years too late.

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