Carnegie Mellon rescinds Bill Cosby's honorary degree

Credit: Courtesy of Sriram Bala via Flickr Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Sriram Bala via Flickr Wikimedia Commons

Bill Cosby was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. This announcement on Thursday marked the end to a legal battle that has spanned more than a decade, which led to more than 50 women stepping up and saying that they, too, had experienced sexual violence at the hands of Cosby. It also marked the end of another debate that directly involved the Carnegie Mellon community as the university announced that same day in an unsigned statement that they were going to revoke the honorary degree they had granted Cosby in 2007.

The university first commented on the issue in 2015 when the University of Pittsburgh revoked the degree they had granted Cosby after the outpouring of public interest that comedian Hannibal Buress sparked in the issue with his 2014 act calling Cosby a “rapist.” Associate Director of Media Relations Abby Simmons said at the time to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the “university is having internal discussions about Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. The university has not made a decision at this time.”

Evidently, what they, like many other universities who had granted Cosby an honorary degree, were waiting for was for the actor to be officially charged with the crimes he had been accused of. This move drew much criticism, including from the 2015 Tartan Editorial Board, as many felt that the accusations of dozens of women or even the deposition that was made public in 2016 that shows Cosby admitting to drugging women before sex should have been sufficient reason to revoke Cosby’s degree, as a charge seemed more and more uncertain when the legal battle dragged on. Institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh, Tufts University, Fordham University, and Brown University chose to rescind the honorary degrees they had granted him before a conviction was made.

The Provost at the time Cosby was awarded the degree, Mark Kamlet, Professor of Economics and Public Policy and Provost Emeritus, said in an email interview with The Tartan, “Others may well disagree with me about the fact that Carnegie Mellon waited until Mr. Cosby was convicted to withdraw his honorary degree. But, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ remains one of the central tenets of our government and legal system. Mr. Cosby has now been found to be guilty and within one day Carnegie Mellon took its action — as did Temple University, his alma mater, and others — I wish he were convicted far sooner.”

This year’s criteria for nominees for honorary degrees called for candidates who have “reached preeminent levels of distinction in their fields and demonstrated extraordinary achievements, preferably those associated with educational, research or performance programs at Carnegie Mellon,” and “demonstrated respect and appreciation for the responsibilities of citizenship and service to society.”

At the time Cosby was selected to receive an honorary degree in 2007, several women including Andrea Constand, Tamara Green, and Beth Ferrier had gone public with accusations that Cosby had sexually assaulted them. Carnegie Mellon was certainly not the only institution that chose to not heed these accounts and award Cosby an honorary degree, as the accusations did not receive much widespread public attention until Buress’s comments in 2014. The New York Times reported in 2015 that he had over 60 such honorary degrees.

Kamlet, who along with then-President Jared Cohon, was responsible for awarding Cosby with the degree at the commencement ceremony but was not involved in the selection process, said that most of the Carnegie Mellon community was “thrilled that Mr. Cosby agreed with enthusiasm to be Carnegie Mellon’s graduation speaker and to be awarded an honorary degree,” which, he continued, made it “certainly devastating to learn the truth.”

While many other universities have chosen to follow in rescinding degrees after the charges were made public, with Boston College making Cosby the first person in the history of their institution to have their honorary degree taken away, still others insist that there is either no process or no point to revoking degrees they have awarded.

“Any future decisions to revoke honorary degrees will be made by university leadership on a case-by-case basis,” Simmons said in an interview with The Tartan. She also reinforced the statement made by the university that “Carnegie Mellon University has long had a clear and unwavering commitment: The university will not tolerate sexual violence, intimate partner violence, stalking or sexual harassment. These acts are against the law and violate our core values.”

Professor Kamlet reiterated that this consideration has long been an important issue for those responsible for governing Carnegie Mellon. “Promotion of diversity and proactive action against gender discrimination let alone sexual harassment and sexual aggression have been and must be key priorities for Carnegie Mellon. I can say, firsthand, how important this was to President Jared Cohon, and I strongly believe these are central priorities for President Jahanian.”

The conclusion of that commitment was the same as the conclusion of the two-paragraph statement released by the University: “In order to fulfill that commitment and in light of Bill Cosby’s criminal conviction for aggravated indecent assault, Carnegie Mellon University has decided to revoke an honorary degree it awarded to Mr. Cosby in 2007."