To Revoke or Not to Revoke? Colleges Grapple with Honorary Degrees in the #MeToo Era

photo:  deviyanthi79/shutterstock

photo:  deviyanthi79/shutterstock

Ah yes, the honorary degree. It's as quintessentially collegiate as the quad on a spring day or a university's ivy-strewn buildings. It's also a low-risk, PR-friendly tool to celebrate an acclaimed graduate or a particularly generous donor.

What's not to love? Well, here are just a few reasons:

Charlie Rose. Matt Lauer. Roger Ailes. Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, at least 10 prominent men facing allegations of sexual misconduct have also received honorary degrees from esteemed American universities, according to the Associated Press. 

Logic would dictate each university should simply revoke each degree; after all, revoking a degree is easier than returning a donation, which, as previously noted when Bill and Camille Cosby's donation to Spelman College turned radioactive, can be a lot harder than it looks

But so far, schools seem to be addressing each accusation on a case-by-case basis. As we'll soon see, this can be problematic. 

A "Haphazard" Process

University administrators are operating without a roadmap here, a point underscored by Timothy McDonough, a vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, who said the issue of revoking degrees is something "that more colleges are facing now, and I think each one will look very carefully at these situations and make their own determination."

The big complicating factor is the fact that in many cases, honorary degrees exist "just to recognize a wealthy donor," rather than to honor professional achievement, said Robert O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia.

It's one thing to revoke a degree to a graduate who found success in the entertainment industry. It's another thing entirely if the donor gave millions to the university over the past two decades and whose name adorns those ivy-strewn buildings.

As a result, we're seeing what O'Neil calls "eclectic or haphazard" processes at institutions that risk creating a "very bad precedent.”

"Haphazard" is the operative word.

Many schools have revoked honorary degrees to disgraced individuals. Oswego State, for example, decided to revoke an honorary degree issued to Charlie Rose in 2014. "These are credible allegations of predatory sexual harassment that completely conflict with the core values of our institution and significantly degrade the achievements that were the basis for awarding him an honorary degree," university President Deborah Stanley said.

Then again, schools like Juilliard School in New York, which gave an honorary doctorate to actor Kevin Spacey in 2000, did not. The school said, as policy, it does not rescind such honors.

To understand why the process is so haphazard, consider the new procedural and administrative demands facing universities in the #MeToo era.

Harder Than It Looks

First off, few schools have articulated and codified guidelines for degree revocation.

Marist College, for example, faced calls to rescind a 2001 honorary degree given to alumnus and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. (O’Reilly gave $25,000 to Marist, along with a $1 million donation to start a scholarship program.)

But Marist has no formal policy for giving or rescinding awards. According to AP, spokeswoman Julia Fishman said the governing board recently started the process to craft one.

The guiding principle in crafting such a policy, according to Robert O'Neil, should be the extent to which the recipient's alleged actions come into "significant conflict" with the university's ideas. "I expect that the whole process will be much tidier and much more conscientious going forward," he said.

Conscientious? Yes. Tidy? I'm not so optimistic.

There's nothing particularly "tidy" about defining and codifying what constitutes "significant conflict" with a university's ideas in the #MeToo era. There's a scale of relativity here; do university administrators want to go down that semantic or ethical rabbit hole? Do they want to specify certain actions that come into "significant conflict" the university's ideals? It's a slippery slope.

Should schools decide to issue honorary degrees in the future, they'll also need to ramp up their due diligence. I wager most university administrations didn't sign up to be private investigators prying into a donor's background.

Of course, these demands suggest an even tidier solution: Schools can get out of the honorary degree business entirely. 

The University of Virginia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology forbid such degrees. As to the former school, it draws its wisdom not from lawyers, consultants, or philanthropy bloggers, but from its founder, Thomas Jefferson, who disparaged all degrees as "meaningless credentials."