In November, I drafted a petition urging Yale to revoke the honorary doctorate the University awarded Bill Cosby in 2003. An article in the Washington Post had alerted me to the stories of 16 women who said that the popular comedian had assaulted them, with a dozen noting that he had drugged them into submission beforehand. An op-ed titled “Rescind Cosby’s Doctorates,” authored by Clemson associate professor Jonathan Beecher Field and posted to the blog Inside Higher Ed, inspired me to write my own letter to University President Peter Salovey. In the middle of December, when I finished gathering signatures, about 200 members of the Yale community had co-signed. Salovey responded with a polite note about the University’s strong position against sexual misconduct and the need to build our community on integrity and respect. He told me he and his colleagues would “continue to monitor the situation.”
Consider the situation monitored. We have since learned that Cosby’s pattern of abusive behavior spanned decades. In a 2005 deposition, he admitted giving Quaaludes — the powerful sedative of “Wolf of Wall Street” fame — to women with whom he intended to have sex. Now nearly 50 women have come forward to share what the TV dad in the Technicolor sweaters allegedly did to them. Thirty-five of those women spoke to New York magazine, which this summer published a powerful story about their experiences. The cover of that issue featured a black-and-white photograph of every one of those women, each seated and staring at the camera. Their pictures were arranged in a grid. An empty chair, positioned in the bottom-right corner, symbolized the women who have yet to come forward.
The bravery of these women — and the cruelty of the man they say attacked them — has inspired many institutions, academic and otherwise, to strip Cosby of the numerous honors he once held. Spelman College put an end to an honorary professorship that Cosby and his wife had endowed. The Navy took back his honorary rank. Netflix scrapped a previously planned Cosby comedy special. And yesterday, two Jesuit universities, Fordham and Marquette, independently announced they would rescind the honorary degrees they had awarded to Cosby.
Yale should add its voice to this group of institutions, and in doing so, stand in solidarity with the women who have spoken out about their harrowing experiences. Revoking Cosby’s doctorate is about more than achieving justice for his victims. It is a gesture, however small, against sexual violence wherever these heinous crimes occur — including at Yale and other college campuses. Fordham’s president, Joseph M. McShane, expressed this sentiment well when he wrote that Cosby’s behavior “hurt not only his victims, but all women, and is beyond the pale.”
What continues to boggle my mind is the existence of Cosby apologists. Last year, when I was working on the petition, a classmate messaged me to let me know that although he admired my activism, he would refrain from signing until Cosby was convicted in a court of law. But Cosby’s legal team has mounted a fierce defense against his accusers. The women who came forward have subjected themselves to vitriolic attacks and have little to gain from false accusations. Cosby’s star-power may have dimmed, but unfortunately, his celebrity still shines bright enough to blind otherwise intelligent, kind people to the dozens of women bravely seated before us.
Before reading that Washington Post article last November, I didn’t consider myself passionate about stopping sexual violence. I cared about other causes more, and although I supported in principle the work my friends and classmates had done to support Title IX complainants or organize Take Back the Night events, I was just as likely to roll my eyes at their passion behind closed doors. Wasn’t this all, I thought, a bit too much?
No more. The Cosby women and the shameful treatment they have received has opened my eyes. The time is now to revoke Cosby’s honorary doctorate, and I ask you to join me in urging President Salovey to do so. Today, I’m shocked that it’s taken 35 women on a magazine cover to motivate our nation’s institutions into action, and frustrated that many still refuse to take a stand. But what moves me to continue is the shameful truth that it took almost as many women to motivate me.
Marissa mMedansky is a 2015 graduate of Morse College and an opinion editor on the Managing Board of 2014. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .