George Washington University’s president announced Monday that the honorary degree presented to Bill Cosby in the 1990s would be revoked, the latest college to back away from the actor and comedian who has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women and was charged last month in a decades-old case.
GW’s decision was an about-face from the position the university took in the fall, so President Steven Knapp explained in a letter to the campus community why he decided to join the list of institutions that have made similar decisions regarding Cosby. The move comes in the midst of heightened national concern over the issue of rape at colleges, an issue which makes the allegations against Cosby particularly raw on campus.
Knapp wrote to let members of the college community “know what the university has been doing and is continuing to do in response to the ongoing problem of sexual assault that afflicts every college campus, including ours.”
He described efforts such as ongoing participation in the White House’s “It’s on Us” campaign to prevent sexual assault, a new Title IX coordinator, a new administrator charged with sexual-assault prevention and response, and mandatory training for students.
“In light of these efforts, students last fall raised the question of whether, given the numerous allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, the university should rescind the honorary doctoral degree it conferred on Mr. Cosby in 1997,” Knapp wrote.
“Last October, we issued a statement indicating that honorary degrees were conferred at a moment in time, based upon what was known about the candidate at that time, and it had never been the university’s practice to rescind a degree in response to later information.
“Since then, however, I have continued to discuss this issue with students as well as colleagues. What has particularly moved and impressed me has been the argument that, whatever may ultimately be determined about the guilt or innocence of Mr. Cosby in a court of law, the controversy itself has become a cause of renewed distress for our students and alumni who are survivors of sexual assault.
“That makes this case different, in my considered judgment, from other cases in which the assessment of a degree candidate might be altered by subsequent information or events. I have therefore decided that the university will rescind Mr. Cosby’s honorary degree.
“This action by itself will not end the scourge of sexual assault on this or any other campus. We will need to continue working as a community,” he wrote, and closed by asking for suggestions.
The university’s October statement said: “While we are shocked and disturbed by the allegations against Mr. Cosby, honorary degrees are conferred at a moment in time, based on what the university knows about the honoree at that time. It has never been the university’s practice to rescind an honorary degree.”
Many students at GW were upset by that, student body president Andrea Dowd said. GW’s student association senate voted unanimously to formally condemn the decision to uphold the honor.
During the debate, speakers said they were trouble by the message the honorary degree was sending about the university’s values. The resolution read, in part, It read in part, “WHEREAS An honorary degree from the George Washington University is for those who
“demonstrate the value of hard work, dignity and integrity.”
“WHEREAS Recently, more than 40 women have spoken out accusing Mr. Cosby of drugging
and raping them…”
Leaders from the student association and campus group Students Against Sexual Assault met with Knapp and other officials to make their case, after studying what other colleges and universities had chosen to do.
Cosby, who for decades was one of the country’s most beloved entertainers and had close ties to Washington, including the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, has denied the accusations of women who say that he raped or sexually assaulted them. A lawyer for Cosby did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.
Last year, court documents from 2005 were unsealed showing Cosby had acknowledged in a deposition that he intended to give drugs to women with whom he wanted to have sex.
“I”m very happy with it,” Dowd said of the president’s statement. “The decision to revoke the honor is about more than the degree. “It shows we’re there to continue to support survivors.”