Yale has doled out more than 2,500 honorary degrees since it was founded in 1701. On Tuesday, Bill Cosby, who had an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the university—the kind awarded to people who have made “contributions to society”—conferred upon him in 2003, became the first person in the institution’s history to have his rescinded.
The decision was “based on a court record providing clear and convincing evidence of conduct that violates fundamental standards of decency shared by all members of the Yale community, conduct that was unknown to the board at the time the degree was awarded,” Tom Conroy, a university spokesman, said in a statement. He further noted that the university “is committed to both the elimination of sexual misconduct and the adherence to due process,” adding that the university was reaffirming its commitment to those goals by pulling the honor.
But the decision to rescind the doctorate—and turn back on centuries of precedent—does something else as well: It underscores the gravity of the crimes of which Cosby has been found guilty, and the pressure upon universities to signal they are taking the issue of sexual abuse on campus seriously.
Revoking an honorary doctorate is rare in higher education, so Yale’s more-than-300-year streak of never having done so stood out—alongside those of the nation’s oldest colleges, Harvard and the College of William and Mary. So it was news last week when Yale announced, after Cosby’s guilty verdict came in, that it would consider withdrawing honorary degrees it had given out. Over the years, by Inside Higher Ed’s count, Cosby has been the recipient of at least 60 honorary degrees, and dozens of colleges had already revoked the honor before Yale did—including Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University, which did so last week. Students had been calling for Yale to yank the honor since 2014, when allegations against Cosby began to resurface.