Opinion: the College should revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary degree

By Sophie Langlois

Dear President Greene, the Board of Trustees, and any corresponding readers,

Courtesy of Colby Magazine, July 1992

I am writing in regard to the recent ruling in which Bill Cosby was found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting women. It has come to my attention that Bill Cosby received an honorary degree from Colby College in 1992, which still stands today. In light of the most recent events, I assumed that there would be no debate surrounding the decision to immediately revoke Cosby’s degree from the College, which many other universities have done. It seems that I am very much mistaken.

In doing further research, it appears that the College has dealt with this issue before in 2015 when the first allegations about Bill Cosby made the news. Correct me if I am wrong, but in 2015 the College decided not to revoke Cosby’s honorary degree, with the Board of Trustees directly stating “although Colby College does not rescind honorary degrees, the board shares the deep concerns expressed by many about the conduct attributed to Mr. Cosby. The board believes that the most appropriate and meaningful way to address both this situation and the disturbing prevalence of sexual misconduct revealed in surveys is to ensure that Colby becomes a leader in sexual violence prevention, education, and support” (Colby Echo, 2015). It is evident from this quotation that the College believed that the most appropriate way to address the situation at that time would be to ensure that Colby becomes a leader and activist in combatting this issue, while maintaining the honorary degree of a rapist. While this is incredibly disappointing, this decision is in the past and now the College is faced with the present situation in which it can choose to be a positive example or one to condone and mock.

In considering the fact that Bill Cosby has now been convicted of these crimes, and that he blatantly admitted to drugging women in 2015, it seems to me that if the College decides not to revoke his honorary degree this time around, it is condoning sexual assault. In other words, this time there are no excuses: it is an undeniable fact that Bill Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted at least one woman, as he himself admitted to in 2015. There is no fluff or perfectly marketed way of sweeping this one under the rug.

One may ask, what does this message, of maintaining Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, send to the students, faculty, and alums? Well, the answer is pretty straight forward: Yes, Bill Cosby may be a rapist and yes, an honorary degree has no significance besides a title and an affiliation with the school, but we value Bill Cosby’s honorary degree more so than we value the millions of men and women who have been sexually assaulted, including members of our own community, and therefore we will maintain his affiliation with this school.

As I am sure anyone reading this would know, Colby College is trying very hard to market itself as the up and coming institution. Recently the College achieved a historically low admissions rate, it is embarking on the largest capital campaign in its history (one of the largest undertaken by any liberal arts college), there is a multimillion dollar athletic center on the way, and the students are all “Daring Northward,” though the specifics of that are still very vague. If the College is supposedly trying to establish a leadership position on the world stage and revive and modernize itself, the Bill Cosby situation is the perfect opportunity for the school to step up to the plate and acknowledge the society and times that we are living in. The #MeToo movement cannot be ignored and the school must decide to own its decisions, accept its mistakes of the past, and put its best foot forward.

Yes, revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary degree will set a precedent, but that is not something to fear: the school cannot shy away from taking a stand on modern day issues, I promise there will still be too many applications coming in next fall. This precedent is the right one: we will not condone sexual assault, regardless of who you are or what you have contributed to the world. It is not about race, it is not about gender, it is not about sexual orientation: it is about sexual assault, human dignity, and the values of the College. It is about respecting the women who Bill Cosby sexually assaulted.

While the College may argue that they do not revoke degrees, merely acknowledging this fact and saying that the school does not stand for sexual assault is not nearly enough. As a matter of fact, it is so clearly a marketing ploy to cover its own name that it is embarrassing. Times have changed. You cannot disregard a component of someone’s character just to save your own reputation.

Moreover, I would like to argue that if the College does make the right decision to revoke the degree, it has a rightful obligation to fully acknowledge the prevalent issue of sexual assault on its own campus, perhaps beginning by investigating the allegations against many of the historic tenured professors, an issue many seem to know about, but no one seems to do anything about.

If you want to move forward, or dare I say, “Dare Northward,” as a school, the mistakes of the past must be acknowledged because they are not going to go away. Colby, step up, face your decisions, and prove to be a leader and an innovator, not a bystander and follower.

While this letter is written on my own behalf, I speculate that many other students at the College would agree. I would be more than happy to discuss this further.

Sincerely,

Sophie Langlois

Dana Hall Class of 2017, Colby College Class of 2021