After criminal charges, attention turns again to Cosby’s honorary degrees

Comedian Bill Cosby at Temple University's commencement Thursday, May 12, 2011, in Philadelphia.  (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

Comedian Bill Cosby at Temple University's commencement Thursday, May 12, 2011, in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

In the wake of felony sexual assault charges against comedian Bill Cosby in Montgomery County, public pressure is increasing on area universities to revoke honorary degrees granted to the famous television dad.

On Wednesday, prosecutors filed three counts of aggravated indecent assault against comedian Bill Cosby, stemming from an alleged 2004 sexual assault. Before the announcement, Cosby had never been charged with a crime in the face of scores of accusations of sexual misconduct. 

In the last two years, more than 50 women have come forward with allegations that the avuncular television personality drugged and assaulted them. However, it was Cosby’s own testimony from an unsealed deposition that’s revived criminal charges against the comedian.

As new information came to light, Swarthmore and Drexel universities revoked his honorary degrees earlier this year.

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Several others — Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania and Cheyney University — have not.

Failing to revoke the degrees sends the message that the women’s accounts are not taken seriously, said a spokeswoman for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a survivor’s advocacy group.

In effect, “even though so many of you have come forward with the exact same stories, we are going to keep this man on a pedestal,” said Karen Polesir. She said continuing to uphold the Cosby honors could discourage those who have been assaulted from seeking help from their universities.

Students at other schools where Cosby holds honorary degrees have petitioned to revoke them as a “gesture, however small, against sexual violence wherever these heinous crimes occur, including…college campuses,” she said. 

The allegations against Cosby come at a time when many universities are grappling with how to adequately prevent and address sexual assault on their own campuses. Temple University is one of 55 schools under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its handling of sexual assault complaints made by members of the student body. 

Temple trustee and former Philadelphia mayoral candidate Nelson Diaz said he has emailed university president Neil Theobald to look into rescinding the degree.

“It’s very, very embarrassing in today’s climate in university when you have all these sexual issues,” he said. Diaz said he has yet to receive a reply from Theobald. Cosby is a former member of the Temple board of trustees.

Temple spokesman Raymond Betzter said he is unaware of any push to revoke the degree, but that since the trustees grant honorary degrees it is up to trustees to revoke them, not the president.

The vice president of communication for the University of Pennsylvania, Stephen MacCarthy, called the allegations against Cosby “deeply troubling” and said the university is “closely monitoring all developments.” In a statement, he maintained, “As we stated previously, however, it is not our practice to rescind honorary degrees.”

Cheyney University staff did not respond to request for comment.

Once popular as a commencement speaker, Cosby has held honorary degrees from nearly five dozen institutions of higher learning.

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