How many times have we seen this movie before? Many, but somehow it always has a different twist.
Here's the scenario, in this most recent release: You're a university president or the head of a college's board of regents, and you have a very generous—and famous—donor who has been accused of criminal acts, perhaps going back decades. Do you keep the money? Return it? Remove his or her name from any endowed buildings or scholarships? Sever all associations with this person? Or do you continue to accept the donor's support?
At this point, you could probably write a dissertation on these questions, looking at universities that have found themselves fretting over tainted money: Like Jewish Theological Seminary, which named a building after Ivan Boesky—before he became the most notorious Wall Street felon of his age. Or the University of Missouri, which took a million bucks from the CEO of a company called Enron.
Now colleges and universities across the country are grappling with similar questions in the wake of the well-publicized sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. Already two colleges have distanced themselves from the actor and comedian, while another has continued to maintain its longstanding ties to him. Cosby is a longtime advocate of education, and his philanthropy includes a lengthy record of giving to colleges and universities, including many historically black institutions. He denies the rape accusations, has not been charged, and in many cases, probably cannot be due to expired statutes of limitations.
But Berklee College of Music in Boston has decided the allegations from multiple women that Cosby drugged and raped them in incidents going back more than 40 years were too hot to handle and removed Cosby's name from a scholarship that it awards. Cosby, a longtime jazz fan, has spoken at the school and he received an honorary degree from Berklee in 2004. Another school, High Point University in North Carolina, removed the entertainer from its advisory board.
The nature of the accusations against Cosby have only heightened the sensitivity of the issue, as many colleges themselves face accusations of inaction in reducing the incidence of on-campus sexual assaults. Berklee is one of dozens of institutions facing a federal Department of Justice investigation for its handling of rape cases.
Most significantly, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where Cosby received his master's and doctoral degrees in education, cut ties to its famous alumnus, asking him to step down as honorary chairman of the school's $300 million fundraising campaign. The Boston Globe reported that UMass Amherst took this action only a day after announcing it was sticking by Cosby, who, along with his wife Camille, has given hundreds of thousands to the school.
The entertainer has also found himself uninvited as a commencement speaker. Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee canceled a planned Dec. 5 commencement address by Cosby, replacing him with Dr. Ben Carson, the outspoken conservative physician who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Not everyone, however, is running away from Cosby. His undergraduate alma mater, Temple University in Philadelphia, appears to be standing by him, at least for the time being. Cosby remains a member of Temple's Board of Trustees, although a petition campaign is underway demanding the university sever its ties to him.
A list of the colleges and universities supported by Cosby includes many prominent HBCUs, including Spellman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta.
Institutions of higher education may make the difficult decision to cut ties with famous donors who get into trouble, believing that not doing so sends the wrong message or is in conflict with the school's values. That was the case for University of California at Los Angeles, which canceled a $3 million pledge for kidney research from former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after audio recordings surfaced in which Sterling made racist comments. At the time, UCLA said accepting Sterling's gift would conflict with the university's commitment to diversity.
So far, according to USA Today, no institution to which Cosby and his wife have donated have decided to reject or return the money. But the allegations, coupled with growing public pressure to do more about on-campus sexual assault, have led many colleges to distance themselves from the man once beloved as "America's Dad."
A counterargument, however, reminds us of Balzac's famous quote that "behind every great fortune, there is a crime," and asks that if the money is going to a good cause, what's the problem? After all, early American philanthropists, such as the 19th century robber barons, endowed foundations (some of which exist to this day) and shoveled millions into the coffers of colleges, museums, and other causes, often to burnish their images.
There may be no definitive answer to the question of what to do when a generous donor—be it Bill Cosby, Donald Sterling, or anyone else—is accused of unlawful, unethical, or unsavory actions. But it does raise important considerations for colleges and universities seeking support from alumni, funders, and other donors. Perhaps the best solution is to take each situation on a case-by-case basis. In this situation, a growing number of schools have decided to distance themselves from a man accused of multiple rapes at a time in which they face growing pressure to create safer campuses for their female students.