On Friday, Penn announced that it will not revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, after weeks of declining to comment on the subject.
In a one-sentence statement, a University spokesperson said: “While the allegations against Mr. Cosby are deeply troubling, it is not our practice to rescind honorary degrees.”
Cosby has been accused by over 50 women of sexual assault, one of whom said she was assaulted on campus at the 2004 Penn Relays. In a 2005 deposition — which a judge unsealed this year — Cosby admitted that he obtained quaaludes and intended to give them to women with whom he wanted to have sex. So yes, the allegations against Cosby are deeply troubling. And we are disappointed in both the University’s choice not to take action and the lack of transparency surrounding that decision.
The University has justified its decision not to revoke Cosby’s degree by noting that it’s “not [Penn’s] practice to rescind honorary degrees.” Penn now joins a list of universities — including Boston College, George Washington University, the College of William & Mary and Yale University — that have chosen not to rescind Cosby’s degree.
However, while these universities all say it’s not their policy to rescind honorary degrees, Penn has actually done so in the past. In 1918, the University revoked the degrees of German Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II and German Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff after the U.S. ended diplomatic relations with Germany in World War I.
We are not saying Cosby’s alleged actions are as heinous as starting World War I, but there is precedent for the University to revoke an honorary degree. And because of the lack of transparency surrounding the discussion about Cosby’s honorary degree, it’s not clear when the University made the decision to change its policy. It seems to us like the decision must have been made sometime during the Board of Trustees’ fall meeting last week, because only afterwards did the University decide to comment on the situation.
The lack of transparency is further troubling because the University gave no justification for its policy to not rescind honorary degrees. While there are legitimate arguments against rescinding an award given by the University, there are also legitimate counter-arguments (some of which we have already made). It’s impossible to make those counter-arguments, though, when you don’t know what you’re arguing against.
In this situation, Penn should have looked to Haverford College as an example. Haverford, in a statement provided to Vulture, said that it has never before rescinded an honorary degree. But in deciding whether or not to rescind Cosby’s degree, the college has reached out to students, faculty, staff and alumni to seek their input. The college, in its own words, is “beginning with the process itself: How and why degrees are awarded, and how and why could they, or should they, be rescinded?”
The University made the wrong decision concerning Cosby’s degree and, as a result, sent the wrong message to victims of sexual assault on campus. But, regardless of whether that decision was the right one, the University made it without clearly justifying its logic. At a school where all students are required to take courses in how to adequately justify their own arguments, we’re disappointed that the administration has refused to justify its own decision.
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