Why Hasn’t Wesleyan Rescinded Bill Cosby’s 1987 Honorary Doctorate?


Cosby meeting with the Director of University Relations and John Woodhouse ’53 during a 2010 fundraising event for Green Street Arts Center. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Content warning: This article discusses allegations of sexual assault. Community and official support resources can be accessed here, here, and here.

Conversations and actions regarding sexual assault at Wesleyan are nothing new. Hookup culture at this University has extensively been written about on Wesleying and elsewhere. Wesleyan was featured in Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary about rape on college campuses. Wesleyan also has a longstanding history of association with Bill Cosby.

It is news to none that there is strong evidence to suggest that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist. Cosby has now been formally charged with three felony accounts of aggravated indecent assault, which comes after more than 40 women have come forward publicly stating that they are survivors of instances in which Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them. In the cultural dialogue that followed the bringing-forth of these stories, attention began to turn to the 37 colleges and universities, Wesleyan being one, that have granted Cosby an honorary degree, a symbol of institutional support. Questions were being raised as to whether these degrees should be rescinded as a means to destroy this symbolism in college environments already plagued with rape culture.

In 1987, Wesleyan granted Cosby an honorary doctorate of letters. That same year, Cosby gave the commencement address, the full-text of which can be found here. Cosby’s daughter, Erika Ranee Cosby ’87, received a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan that day as well.

In April 2015, the Argus published an article on whether Wesleyan would rescind Cosby’s honorary doctorate, and in it, President Roth stated:

We don’t rescind the degrees…We don’t go backwards…I don’t think we need to change the policy…If we had a high achieving entertainment figure who had the reputation for what these accusations are about, we would definitely not give an honorary degree to them. We don’t think that everyone we’ve given an honorary degree to is a perfect person. On the other hand, we also don’t expect to honor someone who has been accused of serious crimes. So I don’t think we need to change the policy. We need to be prudent about who we give these awards to.

Over the break, Cosby was formally indicted on accounts of sexual assault. At this time, numerous schools including Brown, Oberlin, Amherst, Swarthmore, Tufts, Fordham, Drexel, UMass Amherst, Marquette University, Drew University, and Goucher College had already taken action to rescind honorary degrees granted by them to Cosby.

I emailed President Roth, Antonio Farias and Deborah Colucci (Wesleyan’s Title IX staff), and the officers of the Board of Trustees asking whether the position of the University has changed in light of Cosby’s formal criminal indictment. I received no response. Upon arriving back to campus, I decided to contact Wesleyan’s Media Relations regarding the matter. I received this response Tuesday morning:

There’s been no change in the University’s position.

The question must now be raised, why is Wesleyan choosing to be an outlier among our peer institutions with our failure to discontinue our symbolic institutional support of a serial rapist in the form of an honorary doctorate? Not only does Cosby epitomize the horrors of rape culture, he has long been accused of preaching respectability politics, which some see as inherently linked to rape culture.

Julia DeVarti ’17, a member of the newly-formed Survivor Support Network, had this to say in response to the University’s position:

While I’m not surprised by the University’s decision to not rescind Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, I’m still deeply disappointed. Again and again, the administration has neglected the experience of sexual assault survivors on campus. By refusing to take away Cosby’s degree, Wesleyan is remaining complicit in a culture that blames survivors and protects rapists. We’re not even asking for something extremely radical right now; so many of our partner institutions have already rescinded Cosby’s degrees, and it seems natural to me that we would follow suit.

Last semester a group of people (both survivors and non-survivors) formed a support network for survivors of sexual assault on campus. Our main goal is to reach as many survivors as possible (and unfortunately there are many of us at Wes) and to support each other when the University fails to do so. Within the network we’re trying to address the ways in which sexual assault affects us differently based on race and sexuality, among other things.

Apart from Cosby’s 1987 reception of an honorary doctorate from Wesleyan and the delivering of that year’s commencement address, Cosby headlined a gala fundraiser in 2007 that raised $2.5 million for financial aid at Wesleyan. Cosby also raised $75,000 for Green Street Arts Center from a performance he gave in Crowell Concert Hall in 2010, prior to which a meet-and-greet with Cosby was sponsored by Joshua Boger ’73, current chairman of the Board of Trustees. After this event, President Roth announced a Wesleyan scholarship in Cosby’s name. That same year, Cosby was the subject of this bizarre Argus article.

Cosby has a longstanding relationship with Wesleyan, which the administration apparently does not wish to end completely. We must, as students, ask ourselves: is this consistent with narratives of inclusiveness and support for the marginalized that we are told to be of value to this University?

For further reading (note: all articles come with a content warning and discuss in differing levels of detail issues of sexual assault at Wesleyan):

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One thought on “Why Hasn’t Wesleyan Rescinded Bill Cosby’s 1987 Honorary Doctorate?

  1. Steven Kidder

    Wesleyan should rescind his honorary doctorate, because we need to stand with victims and say once and for all that sexual assault isn’t what Wesleyan stands for!

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