Since 2015, several colleges and universities have called into question whether they should take back honorary degrees they had previously awarded to comedian and actor Bill Cosby. Over 50 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault. His first trial last June ended in a mistrial and he is set to appear in court again in April.
On Thursday, Feb. 1, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) announced that it will revoke its honorary degree for Cosby in light of the allegations against him. In a statement, Hopkins, which awarded Cosby an honorary degree in 2004, indicated that it has no current plans to revoke his degree.
“Johns Hopkins University remains deeply troubled by the reports and allegations regarding Bill Cosby,” the statement read. “As stated previously, Johns Hopkins has a set of values we seek to uphold and we continue to closely monitor all developments related to this matter. We exercise great care and deliberation in awarding an honorary degree and would do so in the event of revoking one.”
Lili Bernard, a Hopkins parent who appeared on The Cosby Show in the 1990s has since come forward with accusations against Cosby. In October 2015, she contacted the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU) asking them to assist her in calling on the University to revoke Cosby’s degree.
Bernard, who is the mother of junior Rafael Ferguson, met that semester with members of SARU and University officials Maureen Marsh, the secretary of the Board of Trustees, and Paul Pineau, the Board’s vice president and general counsel. During the meeting, Bernard said that she shared her story and had two witnesses testify on her behalf.
At the time, the University stated that it was “actively reviewing” Cosby’s honorary degree but ultimately did not revoke it. In the months following, Bernard sent several follow-up emails to inquire about the status of the University’s decision.
“What is particularly disturbing about the apathy, the disregard and the disrespect that JHU has shown for me in my plea to revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary doctorate is that I brought witnesses to the meeting – to the table, on video chat – and that wasn’t enough,” she said.
One of the witnesses was Nanci Brown, Bernard’s agent at the time, and the other was a producer on The Cosby Show whose girlfriend was assaulted by Cosby.
“[Nanci] corroborated my story by telling them that she was absolutely aware of what Bill Cosby did because I told her back in the early 1990s as I was being abused,” she said. “She also told them that she was trying to convince me to go to the police and that I was too terrified because he had threatened my life and made serious threats to me.”
In addition, Bernard said that she shared evidence of her abuse.
“I have compelling evidence, and yet I can’t do anything with that evidence because the incident occurred just slightly outside of the statute of limitations,” she said.
Junior Mayuri Viswanathan and senior Dani Pitkoff, the current co-directors of SARU, said that they were also disappointed with the decision.
“Many of our peer institutions — most recently UPenn — have made this move,” Viswanathan said. “It’s clear that it is materially and symbolically important to show where our administration stands. They are really missing a clear opportunity here to show support for survivors.”
Bernard said that UPenn’s decision to revoke Cosby’s degree sends a positive message to survivors.
“They said that part of the reason they were rescinding it was because of the highly credible [testimonies] that these Bill Cosby survivors have been sharing publicly,” she said. “That is a really good thing. They are saying that they believe the women, that they don’t need a court of law.”
According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, this is the first time in over 100 years that UPenn revoked an honorary degree. Hopkins has never rescinded one.
Honorary degrees are awarded annually at commencement. According to the University’s commencement website, they are meant to “recognize and celebrate extraordinary human achievement in a way that aligns with the aspirations, values, and commitments of Johns Hopkins University.”
Nominations for honorary degree candidates are managed by the Board of Trustees, who decide on the recipients with recommendations from University President Ronald J. Daniels, trustees and faculty.
Although Hopkins has historically not taken back honorary degrees, SARU believes that revoking the degree would be in the University’s best interest. Pitkoff was surprised that Hopkins chose not to rescind Cosby’s degree given that neighboring schools like Goucher College did.
“There were schools in Maryland, specifically, that had already revoked the degree at the time when we were approaching the administration,” she said. “It didn’t seem like such a far-off, crazy request.”
Over the last two years, SARU said that they have repeatedly approached the University to keep advocating for the repeal of Cosby’s degree. Last spring, SARU created the Cosby Taskforce, a group of SARU members who would keep working toward the goal of revoking the degree. Pitkoff said that one of their main initiatives has been reaching out to alumni who can also pressure administrators.
Though SARU has been focused on addressing federal changes in Title IX policy, they plan to continue efforts to revoke the degree. Bernard said that while she still believes revoking the degree would be the right thing, she feels that she has exhausted her resources in plans to get the degree revoked.
“I feel that I have done everything I could to convince JHU to do the right thing, to send the right message to their students,” she said. “You can see that they don’t care, because they dismissed me.”
Though Cosby was charged with three counts of assault, the first trial, which concluded in June 2017, resulted in a hung jury and a retrial was scheduled. Pitkoff said that administrators previously told them that they were awaiting further information.
“We essentially got an answer from the administration saying that they didn’t have enough evidence... and they were going to wait to hear the verdict from the court case,” Viswanathan said. “That ended in a mistrial.”
With a retrial scheduled for April, Pitkoff said that the verdict will inform SARU’s future plans and actions.
“A lot of us are optimistic that with the retrial... there’s a greater chance that he will be held accountable,” Pitkoff said. “We’re hoping that with that, it will be a lot easier to get in touch with administrators one last time.”
Ultimately, SARU hopes that the University will revoke Cosby’s degree in order to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault.
“Revoking this degree would be a show of support from the administration for survivors on campus, that they are believed and that they have a space on this campus to be trusted,” Viswanathan said.