Colleges typically hand out honorary degrees to people whose work and contributions to society they find meaningful and even inspirational. At last year’s commencement, Boston University gave a degree to Red Sox player and Boston icon David Ortiz, affectionately known as “Big Papi,” to honor his impressive baseball career and contributions to charity. These degrees also place value on people who boast an esteemed moral character that colleges would like to recognize.
When Boston College gave an honorary degree to Bill Cosby in 1996, the numerous sexual assault allegations against him hadn’t surfaced yet. In 2015, BU, Amherst College and Tufts University, colleges that had previously granted Cosby an honorary degree, withdrew these honors soon after the stories came out.
That was when Boston College should have done the same.
On Friday, BC rescinded Cosby’s honorary degree after he was officially convicted as a sex offender the previous day. Earlier that week, BC officials said they would stand by the honorary degree, citing policy guidelines.
“As a matter of policy, we do not rescind honorary degrees, which are given to individuals based on their accomplishments at the time of the award,” BC spokesman Jack Dunn told The Boston Globe Thursday.
It shouldn’t have taken three years for BC to realize Cosby as a felon who had committed sex crimes. Over the past few years, more than 60 women have come forward and revealed their experiences of sexual assault and harassment with Cosby, some of which were particularly disturbing and violent.
By not rescinding the degree immediately, BC effectively discredited these women and the traumatic experiences they went through. The fact that it took a court conviction for BC to revoke this degree is sad and disappointing, especially coming from an institution of higher education that deals with students coming forward with their own experiences of sexual assault on campus.
Policy rules were never a valid justification for BC to maintain its decision. The university should know these policies don’t apply to rapists who have dozens of allegations against them. The policies were probably designed to protect recipients who hold controversial perspectives and receive some criticism — as they should. As long as honorees haven’t hurt anyone, it makes sense for these policies to be upheld, as discourse is necessary in achieving a society that welcomes different ideas. But if the policy comes at the expense of discrediting the survivors of sexual assault, then perhaps these rules should be amended or at the very least, an exception should be granted.
It is precisely this lack of acknowledgement that contributed to the rise of the #MeToo movement in the first place. When people share their stories of sexual assault and accuse people in positions of power, it’s up to us to acknowledge their experiences and stand with them. Taking away something like an honorary degree, which is more symbolic than it is legitimate, shouldn’t take so much deliberation.
BC probably would have stood by its decision to grant Cosby a degree had it not received backlash for doing so. Regardless of when the degree was awarded or how it was decided shouldn’t matter. Officials should have based their decisions on revoking the degree on what was the right thing to do — not on bureaucratic rules.
When accusations of this nature come to light, we turn to institutions to condemn these actions. It’s important that colleges assure us they don’t find the people behind these actions praiseworthy, as academia comprises a significant portion of our society. And the more of society that denounces the accused and stands with the survivors, the more strides it makes in the #MeToo movement and giving victims of sexual assault a voice.
Even if honorary degrees don’t hold much weight, it’s impactful to see colleges rescind them in a timely manner. Unfortunately, BC was late in sending this message, but it’s better the college did rescind the degree and respond to the criticism than do nothing at all.