Doyle ’18: Symbolism matters

Opinions Columnist
Friday, October 2, 2015

If you have checked Facebook, picked up a newspaper or spoken to a Brown student over the last few days, you are likely well aware that the University has chosen to revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary degree awarded to him in 1985, following the lead of Fordham University and Marquette University. This decision came in response to allegations of sexual assault against the previously loved comedian by 35 women.

In Bluestockings Magazine, Annie Furuyama ’18 eloquently criticizes the move as a publicity stunt that attempts to erase Brown’s lackluster record fighting sexual assault and violence in general. It’s true that the simple removal of a largely meaningless degree is no substitute for structural change, but when looking at a university or other prestigious institution, symbolism matters.

Acts of sexual harassment or sexual assault are easily misconstrued as personal matters irrelevant to membership in an unrelated prestigious community. There is little to no boundary between the personal and the political in cases of public figures.

Cosby’s current situation is reminiscent of that of Lance Armstrong only a few years ago. In 2012, the beloved cyclist and cancer survivor was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles in response to his use of steroids. This might seem like an obvious punishment, as the steroids could have interfered with his performance at the competition and were strictly prohibited among participants. Yet this wasn’t his only formal sanction. Armstrong quickly lost eight of his 11 sponsors, including Nike. This is because any type of sponsorship, whether it be through funding or an honorary degree, involves endorsing a person as a whole. An institution simply cannot choose to endorse a specific skill while ignoring all other character traits.

To be clear, this comparison in no way equates Cosby’s disgusting misdoings with Armstrong’s doping. The former robbed dozens of women of their autonomy, while the latter simply engaged in a popular cheating mechanism in an athletic event — an arguably victimless crime.

Still, Cosby, like Armstrong, did have a positive effect on many communities. Fordham cited his role in “breaking the color barrier in American television and popular culture” as grounds for his honorary degree.

Unfortunately, to endorse one’s achievements is to endorse one’s flaws. For this reason, Brown, Fordham and Marquette should be commended for stripping Cosby of accolades simply because his actions have not lived up to the moral expectations and values set forth by such prominent institutions.

Though he has not officially been charged yet, it seems the star of the Cosby Show is slowly getting the symbolic punishment he deserves. So what? As Furuyama points out, Brown is structurally the same institution — with the same flaws — that it was before making this expression of community values.

Yet it is unfair to ignore the University’s progress on the subject. Since the alleged assault of Lena Sclove ’15.5 in 2013, Brown has implemented huge changes in its sexual assault complaint process, including the creation of a Title IX Oversight and Advisory Board and a less time-intensive and traumatic procedure for survivors to seek help. 

These changes stem from dialogue. The University has been forced to respond to pressures stemming from a protest last spring that drew hundreds of students, countless editorials and survey findings. Put simply, words matter.

So whether or not publicity was taken into consideration, President Christina Paxson’s P’19 explicit expression of Brown’s values cannot be fairly seen as anything but positive. The only alternative would have been to continue to endorse a perpetrator for some semblance of consistency in policy. This option is as ridiculous as it sounds. The University should be actively changing its identity to one that supports survivors instead of wallowing in its past.

Hypocrisy is an ugly quality. We learn from a young age to “practice what you preach.” Still, there are worse things in the world than hypocrisy, and support of sexual abuse is one of them.

Unfortunately, preaching often must preclude practicing when it comes to University policy changes. And simply preaching is still better than doing nothing. So the symbolic setting of expectations for members of the Brown community makes me optimistic for the University’s future regarding such an important issue.

Allie Doyle ’18 is probably at Baja’s.


  1. are you still at baja’s

  2. Michael Ovitz says:

    Keep in mind, Cosby was surrounded by a lot of enablers who kept this stuff quiet all along–what about them? Consider this: a Cosby Show staffer was fired and blackballed way back in 1992 for writing this script–and the guy had already been doing this stuff for 20 years!

  3. YOU matter. stay beautiful (:

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