A year ago this month, the sun beat down on Boston University’s Class of 2014, sweating underneath their red gowns, as well as the 20,000 or so well-wishers packed into Nickerson Field for the school’s 141st commencement. President Robert A. Brown, in his Texan-by-way-of-MIT drawl, listed the myriad accomplishments of the school’s honorary degree recipients: actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, BU trustee and namesake of its honors college Rajen Kilachand, MIT molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins, Boston-based nonprofit City Year founder Michael Brown, and entertainer Bill Cosby.
Cosby, forgoing the traditional headgear in favor of a tasseled BU baseball cap, stood politely while Brown quoted his famous “Noah’s Ark” routine from 1963’s Bill Cosby’s a Very Funny Fellow Right. “To call you a comedian, or even more broadly, a performer, would be woefully incomplete,” Brown said. “You are well-known to the public as an actor, writer, and producer. Above all, you are an educator, by word and example.”
“Whether you portray a tennis coach engaged in espionage or a wise family patriarch, your characters are people we like and admire. Your work with children’s television is more than entertainment, it is a collection of well thought-out lessons on important issues in life, from respect to relationships,” Brown continued, as images of Cosby’s past roles were shown on a towering video screen behind him.
“And when you address important issues of the day, you speak fearlessly and from the heart, as when you call upon people in America to do a better job of raising our children. William Henry Crosby, Jr. [sic], performer and educator, we are grateful for all that you have done, and all that you continue to do.”
Amid the grads’ chants for a speech, Cosby stepped to the podium and bellowed Fat Albert’s “Hey, hey, hey!” The crowd went nuts.
And with that, BU achieved a kind of infamy: it became possibly the last university to award Bill Cosby an honorary degree.
Hannibal Buress had not yet called Cosby a rapist onstage—that would happen five months later, shaking the public out of its malaise and eventually prompting dozens of the sitcom dad’s alleged victims to step forward. However, four women had already publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault by the time Boston University bestowed upon him a Doctor of Humane Letters, the same degree it awarded Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel. And the allegations had spread widely, including a long investigative piece in 2006 in Philadelphia magazine.
Several universities, including Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University, have distanced themselves from Cosby in the wake of the accusations. In November, the Boston Globe reported that UMass Amherst had severed ties with Cosby following an admonishment from then-attorney general Martha Coakley. “At a time when the state is focused on prevention and response to sexual assaults on campus, allowing Mr. Cosby to continue to represent our state university sends the exact wrong message,” Coakley said.
Indeed, just months after Cosby’s appearance at BU, the university seemed to be having second thoughts. “At this point, we are monitoring the legal developments surrounding Mr. Cosby very closely,” BU spokesperson told the Daily Free Press last December.
But as the 2015 class of BU prepares to graduate—this year’s commencement speaker, on May 17, is Emmy-winning journalist and television host Meredith Vieira, who has spoken publicly about being a survivor of domestic abuse—the university has yet to rescind Cosby’s degree, even as two more women came forward Friday to accuse Cosby of sexual assault.
It’s long been something of a tradition in higher education to hand Cosby, now 77, an honorary degree. Since 1990, Cosby has not gone more than five years without receiving an honorary degree from an institution of higher learning. Thirteen schools—including Amherst College in 1999 and Yale in 2003—had conferred degrees before January 2004, when Andrea Constand, director of operations for Temple University’s women’s basketball team, allegedly met with Cosby in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. Constand alleges Cosby gave her “herbal pills,” and subsequently “touched her breasts and vaginal area, rubbed his penis against her hand, and digitally penetrated” her.
According to Slate, Constand reported Cosby’s “inappropriate touching” to Canadian authorities in January 2005 upon moving to Toronto. Cosby’s lawyers have called the accusations “utterly preposterous” and “plainly bizarre.” The following month, Tamara Green, a California lawyer, went on NBC’s Today and claimed that Cosby gave her pills for a fever and began “groping me and kissing me and touching me and handling me and … taking off my clothes,” before leaving two $100 bills on her coffee table. In March, Constand filed a five-count civil suit against Cosby, asking for $150 million in damages. Thirteen other women claiming similar experiences are mentioned in the lawsuit anonymously. Constand settled with Cosby for an undisclosed amount in November 2006 without the women testifying.
Beth Ferrier, one of the anonymous women in Constand’s lawsuit, stepped forward in June 2005. She told the Philadelphia Daily News she and Cosby had a relationship in the mid-1980s, culminating in Ferrier waking up in her car after Cosby had drugged her coffee. “My clothes were a mess. My bra was undone. My top was untucked. And I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh my God. Where am I?’ What’s going on? I was so out of it. It was just awful,” she said.
In a 2006 investigation by Philadelphia magazine’s Bob Huber, Barbara Bowman alleged that Cosby threw her onto a bed, bracing his forearm against her neck while he removed her clothes. In a follow-up interview, Bowman told Philadelphia, “I can still remember him messing with his belt. And I was screaming and crying and yelling and begging him to stop.” People later published Bowman’s account of two nights—one in a hotel in Reno, one in Cosby’s New York City townhouse—in which she alleges that Cosby drugged and abused her. The same story alleges three of the 13 women in Constand’s case had accepted cash from Cosby for years.
Then, as if nothing had happened, the honorary degrees started flowing again: Carnegie Mellon in 2007, Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008, and Marquette University in 2013. Also in 2013, Cosby delivered the commencement address for Boston University’s School of Education. There, he instructed future educators to “find that next Bill Cosby.” In February 2014, Newsweek published interviews with Green and Bowman. Cosby’s publicist described Green’s accusations as a “10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing.”
Just 94 days later, BU announced Cosby as its 2014 commencement speaker—a scant three years after the university was rocked by sexual assault allegations against star hockey players Max Nicastro (later dismissed by a Brighton District Court judge, though the District Attorney noted at the time that Nicastro accuser still stood by her claims) and Corey Trivino (who pleaded guilty to assault and battery charges and was sentenced to two years probation); and two years after the school’s task force, chaired by Provost Jean Morrison, found a “culture of sexual entitlement.”
Since then, more than three dozen women have accused Cosby of sexual assault. Cosby’s lawyers have routinely dismissed the allegations as being untrue, while Cosby himself has repeatedly declined to answer questions about them. But the latest allegations came just last week, when Lili Bernard, an actress who appeared on the final season of The Cosby Show, and Sammie Mays held a press conference with New York attorney Gloria Allred to announce the latest accusations—which sound all too similar to the accounts that were floating around prior to BU’s 141st commencement.
“In December 2014, after a number of public accusations of sexual assault were made against Mr. Cosby, we said we were monitoring the legal developments surrounding Mr. Cosby closely. That remains the case,” BU spokesperson Colin Riley said in an email.
“It was after video of an October 2014 stand-up performance went viral that numerous women came forward with accusations that Mr. Cosby had sexually assaulted them. Prior to the May 2014 commencement, I believe we were aware of an out-of-court legal settlement involving Mr. Cosby, but don’t believe there were pending legal cases,” Riley said.
While some colleges have distanced themselves from the embattled Jell-O salesman, BU is not alone among prestigious institutions that have failed to retract honorary degrees. At Yale, a student petition circulated to rescind Cosby’s degree, but the university has yet to do so, press secretary Tom Conroy tells Boston.
In 2004, Berklee College of Music gave Cosby—the school’s commencement speaker—an honorary Doctor of Music degree “for his commitment to advancing higher education and for his longtime love and promotion of jazz.” Berklee later removed Cosby’s name from an online scholarship it awards, but did not rescind his degree.
“Berklee no longer awards an online scholarship in Mr. Cosby’s name. There are no plans to rescind an honorary degree. The college has no further comment at this time,” spokesperson Rob Hayes said in email.
But other universities—including the one closest to him—have made a point of publicly distancing themselves from Cosby. Most notably, Cosby’s own alma maters has severed ties with the comedian. After an online petition demanding a split received more than 1,400 signatures, Cosby resigned from his beloved Temple University’s board of trustees, on which he served for 32 years. UMass Amherst, where Cosby earned a master’s and doctorate in education, removed him as honorary co-chair of the school’s $300 million fundraising campaign. Even the U.S. Navy yanked the title of “Honorary Chief Petty Officer” it gave Cosby in 2011, calling the accusations “in conflict with the Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment.”
Unless BU acts soon, there will be a proverbial elephant in the room when the Class of 2015 files in to “Pomp and Circumstance” and proud parents wave from the stands. This year’s speaker, Meredith Vieira, has spoken publicly about being a survivor of domestic abuse. And how BU handles last year’s honorary awardee will speak volumes—not only about what BU thinks of Cosby’s accusers, but the esteem in which the university holds fellow recipients of the same degree. Until administration acts, the dubious distinction of “Last University to Grant Bill Cosby an Honorary Degree” will belong to BU.
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