Board of Trustees To Consider Rescinding Bill Cosby’s Honorary Degree

Honorary Chief Hospital Corpsman Bill Cosby delivers remarks during his pinning ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jay M. Chu/Released)

Honorary Chief Hospital Corpsman Bill Cosby delivers remarks during his pinning ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jay M. Chu/Released)

By Benjamin Pontz, Managing News Editor

In May of 1997, comedian Bill Cosby served as the keynote speaker for Commencement at Gettysburg College, and, as is typical for such speakers, he received an honorary degree.

Last week, a Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, jury found Cosby guilty on three counts of indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, an employee at Temple University, where Cosby served as a Trustee.

In light of the conviction, Gettysburg College’s Board of Trustees will review the status of Cosby’s honorary degree at its final meeting of the academic year this weekend.

“Yes, it’s under review,” said Jamie Yates, a spokesperson for the college. “The decision lies with the Board of Trustees … in consultation with the President.”

In 2016, the Board of Trustees adopted a policy that would enable revocation of honorary degrees. It requires a two-thirds vote and may be implemented as a result of “action(s) or inaction(s) of the honorary degree recipient have been in violation of federal or state law and/or the values expressed in the Gettysburg College Mission Statement,” College President Janet Morgan Riggs said in an email.

“Given the recent verdict, I expect the Board will discuss the Bill Cosby situation when they meet next weekend,” Riggs added, declining to offer her personal opinion on the matter.

Dr. Shirley Anne Warshaw, Professor of Political Science, has advocated for rescinding Cosby’s honorary degree since credible allegations that he sexually assaulted dozens of women have arisen. She welcomed the news that the Board of Trustees would consider the matter this weekend.

“Over the past two years, I have repeatedly asked the Board to remove the college from the list of Bill Cosby’s honorary degrees,” she said. “We became an outlier as college after college rescinded his honorary degree as more than sixty women gave vivid testimony of sexual assault.  I look forward to the Board finally addressing this issue following Cosby’s conviction this week by rescinding his honorary degree.”

At least 20 institutions have revoked honorary degrees they had awarded to Cosby, and dozens more are considering doing so according to a Forbes report. A 1999 article in New York Times suggested that Cosby has received more than 100 honorary degrees. Temple University, Cosby’s alma mater, rescinded an honorary doctorate conferred in 1991 last Friday.

If Gettysburg’s Board of Trustees does rescind the degree, it will be the first time that has happened in recent memory.

Julia Burgess, Co-President of Students Against Sexual Assault at Gettysburg, hopes the Board moves quickly to rescind the degree.

“This action of support for survivors of sexual assault would demonstrate the college’s desire and ability to create a safe environment for all,” she said in a written statement. “It is so important to believe survivors, and as such, the college has a duty to acknowledge the affects [sic] that a mere honorary degree could have on our survivors and on this institution. To do nothing sets up our college to criticism, backlash, and refutes the tireless efforts that the Office of Violence Prevention and Title IX Office … . Our college is one that upholds values of respect, dignity, authenticity, honesty, curiosity and leadership; Cosby violated those values.”

The Gettysburg College Democrats have begun circulating a petition to campus organizations, student government, and faculty and staff urging the Board of Trustees to revoke the degree.

The petition reads, in part: “We believe that taking this action will reinforce continued efforts the college has made to offer support to victims of sexual assault on our campus. It is critical that we listen to and believe survivors, and acknowledge that sexual assault affects people of every race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status. Mr. Cosby does not embody the ideals that Gettysburg College strives to uphold.”

The Board of Trustees meets this weekend beginning on Friday, and it is expected to discuss the matter at one of its meetings.

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Author: Benjamin Pontz

Benjamin Pontz '20 serves as managing news editor of The Gettysburgian, a position he has held since the middle of his first year. In four semesters, he has written more than 100 articles on topics ranging from student activism on campus to sports. Ben previously served as the event coverage and social media coordinator and led the paper's inaugural efforts using Facebook Live and live tweeting events on campus. Aside from The Gettysburgian, he is a peer research mentor in Musselman Library, a research assistant in the political science department, and drum major of the Bullets Marching Band. He is a political science and public policy double major with a minor in music, and he reads up to seven newspapers daily. Follow him on Twitter @benpontz.

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