Commencement season blooms back to life this weekend, as your typical array of celebrities – Josh Groban, Hannah Storm, members of Lady Antebellum – accept honorary degrees (and in some cases, fat appearance fees) while offering self-help platitudes to the heavily indebted graduates of America’s higher learning institutions. But the most popular commencement speaker of the last half-century won’t be gracing any stages this year, and for good reason: He’s under house arrest, awaiting sentence for sexual assault.
Bill Cosby, the comedian and TV pioneer, was widely known as “America’s Dad” for portraying Cliff Huxtable, the fictional embodiment of black respectability politics, on the iconic Cosby Show. On Thursday, the U.S. Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences expelled both Cosby and director Roman Polanski. Of course, beyond the world of entertainment, Cosby was also America’s Commencement Speaker. Beginning in the mid-’80s, when Brown University gave the Phys Ed major from Temple his first honorary doctorate, he was a fixture on the flower-bedecked stages – delivering some 40 addresses (more than President Bill Clinton, the runner-up) and collecting well in excess of 60 honorary degrees. But even before recent events, Cosby had been shadowed by rumors and gossip about his behavior with women for decades.
Still, the invitations kept flowing, long after Cosby’s reputation was so widely known that People magazine wrote about it (2006) and 30 Rock joked about it (2009). Two years later, the president of Carnegie Mellon (just to pick on one school) was still introducing the alleged serial rapist in rapturous tones: “As an actor, a humanist and a citizen, Bill Cosby had been one of America’s most eloquent advocates for education and the value of developing every individual mind.”
The part about Cosby’s educational advocacy, at least, wasn’t pure hyperbole: Cosby is among the most generous donors ever to historically black colleges and universities, topped by the $20 million he and his wife Camille donated to Spelman College in 1988. He headlined star-studded fundraisers for schools like NYU, led fundraising campaigns for his alma maters (UMass Amherst and Temple), served on boards and bought naming rights to buildings. And when he spoke at commencements, he was both avuncular and bluntly moralistic: “This is it for all of you,” he told NYU graduates in 1997 in Washington Square Park. “You now have to become responsible people to the community. We’re no longer giving you any more slack.”
This role – America’s Commencement Speaker – helped give Cosby decades’ worth of slack. His reputation for generosity and “educational advocacy” gave cover to college officials who kept inviting him to wear their gowns and mortarboards. In turn, Cosby and his handlers advertised his association with HBCUs and prestigious institutions like Yale, Northwestern and Penn – all of which granted him honorary degrees – every chance they got. While some of Cosby’s commitment was surely sincere, it was also golden PR – instrumental in granting Cosby a “cloak of charity,” as the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb put it, that allowed him to continue to allegedly abuse women and earn millions with impunity.
As Cosby aged into his 70s, his reputation diminished but still relatively intact, it looked like he would elude justice – both criminal and moral – for good, while continuing to be a fixture in front of graduating seniors every May. But in 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress had had enough of Cosby’s hypocrisy: On stage in Cosby’s hometown of Philadelphia, he mimicked the older comedian: “Pull your pants up, black people, I was on TV in the ‘80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.” Then Buress went in for the kill: “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby.” Buress’ call-out went viral, and by now, many more alleged victims were ready to come forward: In 2015, New York magazine put the faces of 35 Cosby accusers on its cover. The same year, a judge publicly released a sworn deposition from a civil case, in which Cosby admitted he’d acquired Quaaludes to give to women before having his way with them.
He wasn’t facing criminal charges yet – and most figured he never would – but the gig was finally up. TV Land canned Cosby Show re-runs, Netflix canceled a comedy special and NBC axed a new Cosby sitcom that was in the works. Disney World removed his statue. And many colleges rushed to cut ties with Cosby – or, more accurately, to erase their past relationships with him. His name was taken off buildings and scholarships; UMass Amherst booted him from a huge fundraising campaign he was leading; and more than two dozen of his honorary degrees were revoked by the end of 2016.
But only one college – Spelman, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta – seems to have returned any portion of the disgraced comedian’s money. Temple, the school with which Cosby was most closely associated for decades (its logo was ever-present in the Cosby Show background), refused to kick him off its board of trustees, despite a sustained outcry from its students and alums. (Cosby did eventually resign in 2014.) “What message does it send to students when an alleged serial rapist is sitting on the board of trustees?” asked alumna Kerry Potter McCormick, a New York attorney. “It will have a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual assaults on campus.”
Even the symbolic gesture of taking back Cosby’s honorary doctorates was too much for a dozen of America’s top universities to consider. None was more adamant about Cosby keeping his honorary doctorate than Yale, despite persistent criticism that began with a student petition in 2014. “If Yale can’t do the right thing in this black-and-white instance, how can we have faith that the university will adjudicate more ambiguous cases of assault and harassment in goodwill?” petition organizer Marissa Medansky asked at the time.
For years, the consistent response from Yale was no response at all. “Yale has never rescinded an honorary degree,” the university would repeat whenever asked—never explaining why it was treating those symbolic degrees (the school has given out almost 3,000 of them over time) as if they were Nobel Prizes, or why a tradition of not revoking them trumped students’ concerns. (So much for a free exchange of ideas.) For women’s advocates on campus, the Cosby matter became symbolic of Yale’s head-in-the-sand approach to the #MeToo era.
“The fact that Yale would ignore the experiences of 60 women is not surprising,” says Yale senior Helen Price, “given this administration’s reluctance to face up to how widespread sexual misconduct is here.” Just recently, Price noted by way of further example, “Burgess Howard (the Dean in charge of Greek Life) compared the reports of sexual assault by the DKE fraternity to an incident in his college years when one of his fraternity brothers broke a window.” (Last week, the Yale Daily News ran a powerful op-ed by the anonymous accuser.)
Like the other universities that allowed Cosby to keep brandishing his honors, even as he went on trial for sexual assault in 2017 (a mistrial) and again in April, Yale watched from the sidelines. When that finally happened last Thursday, most of the holdouts stripped Cosby’s degrees within hours. Yale, on the other hand, announced only that it would reconsider its sacred tradition of not revoking honorary degrees. Medansky and other Yalies rolled their eyes: “It’s astounding and frustrating,” she told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. “To say ‘no we won’t do this, no we won’t do this,’ and then on the day of the verdict say, ‘we’ll consider it’ is not a message that makes me feel the university is operating on strict principles.”
On Wednesday, Yale finally relented and took away Cosby’s degree. The university tried to make a virtue out of its unconscionable delay: “Yale is committed to both the elimination of sexual misconduct and the adherence to due process” the announcement read – and that dedication to “due process” had apparently meant that it couldn’t rescind an honorary degree until a court convicted the recipient. (As Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, “If we had to sit around and wait for courts to make basic judgments about people, society would collapse onto itself.”)
As the commencements re-commence around the country this weekend, Cosby still holds a handful of honorary degrees. The most notable schools that haven’t taken them away – NYU, UNC-Chapel Hill and Northwestern – all appear to be moving, however belatedly, in that direction. Yale, meanwhile, will soon have its public-relations stains washed clean by a new round of headlines that will be great for fundraising and media attention: This year’s featured commencement speaker, on May 20th, is Hillary Clinton.