College Rescinds Bill Cosby’s Honorary Degree

On February 26, President Kim Benston announced the Board of Managers’ decision to rescind Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. Haverford awarded Cosby with the degree in 2002.

In an email to the Haverford community, President Benston cited the Honorary Degrees Committee’s recommendation to rescind the degree.

“Although his creative contributions at the crossroads of education, civil rights, and entertainment remain, Dr. Cosby’s admission that he acquired drugs for the purpose of giving them to women with whom he wanted to have sex undermines the educational and humanitarian principles for which the Haverford community honored him fourteen years ago.  The College is deeply troubled by the nature of the conduct to which Dr. Cosby has admitted, which we view as gravely inconsistent with Haverford’s institutional values.”

The Honorary Degrees Committee, composed of students, faculty, and alumni, is a standing committee of the Board of Managers. The Committee conducts a lengthy process to select recipients of the honorary degree: it accepts nominations up to two years before each commencement, gathers information about the candidates, and reviews feedback, according to Jesse Lytle, Chief of Staff.

According to the citation from 2002, Cosby was awarded the degree of doctor of humane letters for his “support and commitment to education and for challenging [himself] and others to pursue the excitement of discovery.”

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© Haverford College

The Committee outlines four criteria for selecting the recipients. In addition to offering inspiration, holding the College’s values, and having a positive impact on the world, the recipient must be someone “whose intellectual curiosity, dedication, passion, diligence, work, and singular skills have led to major contributions that have been recognized (nationally or internationally) for their genuine excellence, distinction, and value in the fields of science, letters, arts, law, or humane letters,” according to the Committee’s charge in 2014.

Although the Committee offers these guidelines for selecting a recipient, there are no procedures in place for rescinding an honorary degree.

“We had to understand for ourselves what it meant for somebody to hold an honorary degree from Haverford and we know the criteria we use to give somebody a degree at a moment in time, but we hadn’t gone through the process of determining what the criteria should be for removing that degree at another point in time,” said Lytle.

In determining the meaning of an honorary degree, Lytle noted that the College awards recipients with a paper degree and a hood.

“There’s really no manifestation of that degree [other than that],” said Lytle. “It’s just an honor.”

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© Haverford College

In 2015, Harrison Elbert ’16 also considered the meaning of an honorary degree and the implications of rescinding Cosby’s.

“In many ways, [rescinding Cosby’s honorary degree] seems to be at best a symbolic gesture; at worst, an ineffectual move against a multi-millionaire who can never be charged with these crimes,” wrote Elbert.

Still, Elbert does see some symbolic value in it today.

“In some ways, symbolic gestures are pretty important as well, especially when an honorary degree is inherently a symbolic thing,” said Elbert.

As a senior, Elbert offered a vision of an honorary degree recipient, in response to the 2014 Birgeneau incident, as well as the decision to rescind Cosby’s degree.

“I think there’s a need to be able to consider things in a more complex way than ‘have they ever said something that offended me’ or ‘have the only been perfect’?” said Elbert. “And I don’t think perfection is what I would look for, but at least more than a nominal alignment [with Haverford’s values].”

Haverford is the second school in the tri-co to rescind Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. Swarthmore awarded Cosby with an honorary degree in 1995 and rescinded it in December 2015.

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