In an email this morning, President Roth ’76 announced this year’s Commencement Speaker will be Saidiya Hartman ’84 (above). Reverend Edwin C. Sanders II ’69 (left) and Former Wesleyan Professor Hazel V. Carby (right) will also receive honorary degrees at the University’s 187th Commencement.
This seems to be the first time in a while that Roth has actually read the room when selecting honorees for Commencement. It’s certainly gratifying to see a Black woman being honored for her achievements on the 50th anniversary of the Vanguard Class of ’96 and the founding of the African American studies program (which has finally been received department status this year).
Certainly, this year’s honorees are a welcome variation from last year’s Commencement Speaker controversy. As many of you recall, Daniel Handler ’92, who has a history of racist and sexist harassment, was chosen as the 2018 Commencement Speaker, while Dr. Anita Hill, known for advocating against those very abuses, was relegated to a lesser position of honorary degree recipient. Handler later withdrew as Commencement Speaker following a flurry of student and alumni demands to #CancelHandler18. Notably, President Roth and the administration did nothing in response to concerns and complaints from survivors, students and alumni of color, and other members of the Wesleyan community. Dr. Hill graciously agreed to give the Commencement address in Handler’s stead.
Hopefully this year’s Honorary Degree recipients can become emblematic of the excellence that Wesleyan chooses to honor at future Commencement Ceremonies, rather than continuing a pattern of choosing powerful (and often problematic) white men who don’t represent the community or values that Wesleyan claims to strive toward.
If you have thoughts or feelings about this year’s selection of honorees, we welcome write-ins and guest posts! Just shoot us an email at staff[at]wesleying[dot]edu.
The full text of Roth’s email can be read below:
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:
Joss Whedon ’86 won’t be the most controversial honorary degree recipient at Commencement this May.
A recent New York Times article, Hero of the Bronx is Now Accused of Betraying It, details the rise of our very own (and this year’s lesser-publicized Honorary Degree recipient) Majora Carter ’88. Carter founded the program Sustainable South Bronx, supporting local food production and urban revitalization in the South Bronx. Now she is consulting for corporations like FreshDirect, which has recently occupied a huge lot in the South Bronx, but serves clients mostly in Manhattan and none in the neighborhood around it. That’s not to mention the $500 fee Carter reportedly charges for initial consultations. Journalist Winnie Hu gives the overview:
Ms. Carter’s meteoric rise also made her a polarizing figure. Many former allies and neighbors say that Ms. Carter trades on the credibility she built in the Bronx, while no longer representing its interests. They say she has capitalized on past good deeds in the way that politicians parlay their contacts into a lobbying career, or government regulators are hired by the companies they once covered.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “Either you’re an honest broker and accountable to the community, or you’re working for a business interest and accountable to that.”
Carter is accused of betraying her ideals and becoming a fallen hero of sorts. (When Wesleying tweeted out a link to the article, South Bronx Unite and other critical parties were quick to weigh in on the situation as it’s perceived. Carter herself briefly joined in with a YouTube dedication of her own.) Some fellow alumni are making the connection to Wes: