I get an average of 10 emails every day from my university about everything from tech updates and tuition notices to on campus events and club meetings. So like most college students, I just mark them read or delete. But last week, when I saw Bill Cosby’s name in the subject line of one of the Fordham University emails, I immediately read it:
“Today Joseph M. McShane, SJ, president of Fordham, put before the University Board of Trustees a motion to rescind Mr. Cosby’s honorary degree. The trustees voted unanimously to do so, officially rescinding Mr. Cosby’s Fordham degree. The University has taken this extraordinary step in light of Mr. Cosby’s now-public court depositions that confirm many of the allegations made against him by numerous women.”
This was the first time that Fordham rescinded an honorary degree from anyone. Just this past year, there was a campus-wide petition to revoke the honorary degree awarded to CIA director, John Brennan, for his defense of torture tactics. When brought to the Board of Trustees, the notion was rejected so, I was pleasantly surprised that the board was willing to take a stand against Bill Cosby. Whatever the reasoning behind this decision, I am proud of my University for standing in solidarity with victims and survivors of sexual abuse. While Bill Cosby’s actions may not have directly affected anyone at Fordham, the culture that allowed him to get away with harming over 30 women is the same culture that allows girls and women at Fordham to be abused, harassed, and even raped without consequence. The story of Bill Cosby and the survivors of his abuse are not isolated incidents. We see this same plot in families, at the workplace, at parties, and on college campuses.
Just like Bill Cosby, 80% of rapists are someone that the victim knows and 98% of them will never spend a day in jail. In the same way that excuses were made for Bill Cosby, college rapists’ get defended as being “nice guys” because no one could imagine that their classmate, teammate, or student is capable of hurting someone. In the same way that people didn’t believe 35+ known victims that came forward over the span of three decades, women who report rape are often shamed, silenced, and ignored by their families, friends, and even police. Because of this attitude toward rape victims, 68% of incidents go unreported.
So although Cosby was not present on Fordham’s campus or any of the other colleges he received degrees from, the influence of his actions is ubiquitous. Taking his degrees away shows that these institutions don’t tolerate or support the culture that excuses rapists and blames victims. While it may not have a large impact on Bill Cosby, rescinding his degrees sends a bigger message to students and faculty that rape culture is unacceptable at their institution. And we need to hear this message now, more than ever.
On college campuses, rape culture is prevalent and problematic for everyone in the community. When no actions are taken against an abuser, other women (and men) on campus are at risk for becoming victims. Lack of punishment sends the message to other abusers that their actions are acceptable. Having students who are afraid for their safety prohibits engagement and success in the classroom. When the administration doesn’t protect students there is a lack of trust in the community. When universities are consistent in ignoring the abuse and suffering of any one person in a community, it will cause a multitude of problems for the whole.
My University is not perfect—no university really is. We cannot always control or prevent the actions of students, faculty, alumni, or even honorary degree members. But what we can do—at Universities, in our communities, and everywhere—is stand up for what is right and against what is wrong.
There are people who say “but he was never found guilty,” to defend Cosby’s innocence. But just like him, there are millions of people who have done harm and never even see a courtroom. Moral values do not always line up with the law of the land. In these times, it is our duty, as a society, to stand in solidarity with victims of injustice whenever and however we are able. Fordham University and Father McShane stood in solidarity with not just survivors of Bill Cosby’s abuse, but the survivors of rape that are students, administrators, faculty, and professors at Fordham when they decided to rescind his degree. I can only hope that we continue to do the right thing going forward.