The Yale Corporation will review the University’s long-standing practice of not revoking honorary degrees, University spokesman Tom Conroy told the News on Thursday — the same day that Bill Cosby, who received an honorary degree from the University in 2003, was found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman.
Students and alumni have called on the Corporation to revoke Cosby’s honorary degree since 2014, when dozens of sexual assault allegations against the comedian became public. While Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania and a host of other schools have revoked honorary degrees they bestowed on Cosby over the years, Yale has not, arguing that the University has never rescinded an honorary degree and that any change to the long-standing practice would have to be taken up by the Corporation — the body that confers the degrees.
On Thursday evening, however, in the wake of the guilty verdict against Cosby, Yale finally announced that it would review its policy on honorary degrees.
“The conduct of which Mr. Cosby was convicted today is profoundly disturbing and deeply contrary to the mission of Yale and our expectations for behavior,” Conroy said in a statement to the News.
Earlier this month, 30 alumni signed a letter calling for Yale to reconsider Cosby’s honorary degree, as well as the one the University gave to Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny — who faces a manslaughter trial in connection with the deaths of 258 workers at asbestos cement plants in Italy.
The letter argued that Yale’s principles on renaming, which the University used to justify the renaming of Calhoun College last year, should be applied to the question of whether to revoke an honorary degree.
But the process by which the Corporation will decide whether to rescind an honorary degree remains unclear. Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor said the Corporation has been tasked with establishing principles and processes to decide the question.
Barry Castleman, an American asbestos expert who has advocated for Yale to rescind Schmidheiny’s degree, said Yale should apply the same principles it established to evaluate naming issues. He added that it was “ridiculous” it had taken this long — until a recipient was found guilty of sexual assault in a criminal court — for Yale to consider rescinding a degree.
But John Fabian Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, who chaired Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, said the principles were established to apply to naming and that he is unsure whether they could apply to the question of honorary degrees, noting that the seemingly similar controversies may involve different underlying problems.
According to former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57, no one has posed the question of rescinding an honorary degree since the 1950s. He said that the University should appoint a committee to establish guidelines, just as it did during the renaming debate.
“There ought to be a process, and it shouldn’t be done one-by-one,” Chauncey said.
After news broke of Thursday’s verdict, Wesleyan University rescinded the honorary degree it gave to Cosby in 1987.
Hailey Fuchs | firstname.lastname@example.org