Updated: Monday, Dec. 1, 4:43 p.m.
As allegations that comedian Bill Cosby serially sexually assaulted women proliferate, some inside and outside the Yale community are calling on the University to rescind Cosby’s honorary Yale degree.
Inspired by an editorial posted on Inside Higher Ed on Nov. 25, Marissa Medansky ’15, a former opinion editor for the News, started an online petition calling on University President Peter Salovey to rescind Cosby’s honorary doctorate, which was awarded in 2003. On Sunday evening around 9 p.m., the petition had 198 signatories.
Though many interviewed, including Medansky, acknowledge that rescinding of the degree would be purely symbolic, the petition’s backers spoke to a broader purpose: confronting Yale with an opportunity to demonstrate its support for victims of sexual assault.
“If Yale can’t do the right thing in this black-and-white instance, how can we have faith that the University will adjudicate more ambiguous cases of assault and harassment in goodwill?” Medansky said.
Medansky added while it is unlikely that Cosby will ever stand trial, society has an obligation to take sex crimes seriously, even though the legal system is still behind.
In an editorial published on the website Inside Higher Ed, Jonathan Beecher Field, an associate professor of English at Clemson University, called on 17 colleges and universities — including Yale — to rescind honorary degrees granted to Cosby.
In an email to the News, Field said he is dismayed by the pervasiveness of rape culture on college campuses and the lack of response by university administrators. Field said rescinding Cosby’s degree would be a way for Yale and other universities to “communicate that the voices of rape victims matter.”
While the University has never rescinded an honorary degree before, student and alumni signatories say the administration should not simply default to a precedent. David Kimmel GRD ’16, who signed the petition, said recipients of honorary degrees should be role models for the rest of society, a title Cosby can hardly claim in light of the allegations against him.
“When it comes to an honorary degree, we’re honoring someone as a human and citizen,” Kimmel said. “The insistence that [rescinding a degree] has never been done in the past is not a valid reason for not taking moral action in the present.”
Many members of the Yale community are working every day to improve Yale’s sexual climate, and rescinding Cosby’s honorary degree would send an important message to those people — and the survivor community more generally — that the University stands behind them, said Women’s Center Public Relations Coordinator Annemarie McDaniel ’16.
When asked about the petition, though, Salovey was noncommittal.
“Rape and sexual assault are abhorrent criminal acts. They are not tolerated at Yale. Allegations that a person has engaged in such acts are serious. The online petition and other voices that call for Yale to revoke the honorary degree awarded to Bill Cosby because of such allegations against him therefore warrant serious consideration,” Salovey said. “Yale has never rescinded an honorary degree, and many would agree that it would be inappropriate to do so based solely on these allegations.”
“I am committed to ensuring that Yale is a place that is supportive, safe and respectful for all, and where the voices of sexual assault survivors are heard and acted upon. I am committed to that work, as are many faculty and staff dedicated to those efforts. I appreciate that Yale students share their concerns directly with me and other campus leaders,” Salovey added.
It remains unclear how other universities, many with stronger ties to Cosby than the awarding of an honorary degree, will distance themselves from the famed actor and comedian. Last week, however, Berklee College of Music reported it would withdraw Cosby’s sponsorship of its online extension school.
In another Inside Higher Ed article, Berklee spokesman Allen Bush said, “College officials should be aware of the perception that campuses are unsafe … and that awareness should include partnerships and how they are perceived by students.”
Bush could not be reached for comment as of Sunday night.
High Point University, which named Cosby to its National Board of Advisors in July, reportedly removed Cosby’s name and photograph from its webpage of board members.
Still, Cosby retains strong ties with Spelman College. In 1988, Cosby gave $20 million to Spelman, and the college has endowed chairs and a building named after Cosby and his wife.