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Temple rescinds Bill Cosby's honorary degree

Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, and Notre Dame pulled Bill Cosby's honorary degrees in the wake of the conviction. West Chester University is preparing to take action.

Comedian and actor Bill Cosby leaves Montgomery County Courthouse after being convicted of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand.
Comedian and actor Bill Cosby leaves Montgomery County Courthouse after being convicted of drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand.Read moreDavid Swanson/ Staff Photographer

Temple University on Friday revoked the honorary degree it gave Bill Cosby in 1991, cutting the last remaining tie with the disgraced entertainer who arguably was the school's most famous alumnus and for years a fixture at its commencements.

The vote Friday morning by Temple's trustees was unanimous except for one abstention, said H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, vice chair of the board. They scheduled the meeting shortly after Cosby was found guilty Thursday of drugging and assaulting former Temple employee Andrea Constand, said Lenfest.

"The bottom line is that Temple held off on taking away his honorary degree until there was a verdict, until the court decided he did something wrong,"  Lenfest said. "We didn't feel it was appropriate to take any action until now. When the verdict was announced, we took action."

He added: "We didn't do that with any relish, I'll tell you. Dr. Cosby did a lot of good things for the university. He was very generous."

The trustees' discussion lasted about a half-hour, according to Lenfest,  a former owner of Philadelphia Media Network who donated it to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Patrick O'Connor, chairman of the board and a lawyer who represented Cosby in 2005 against Constand's civil claims that he assaulted her, did not participate in the discussion, Lenfest said. The university had said that O'Connor had planned to recuse himself, given his prior role.

The vote marked the end of a decades-long association between the Philadelphia school and perhaps its most acclaimed alum, one who grew up not far from its North Philadelphia campus.

Cosby graduated from the school in 1971 and joined its board of trustees in 1982. He wore Temple sweatshirts and hung Temple flags on the set of his award-winning and long-running sitcom, The Cosby Show, and for years had been a popular speaker at Temple commencements. School officials declined to say how much Cosby had donated over the years.

As the allegations unfolded in December 2014, the embattled comedian left the trustees board. In spring 2015, the university announced that Cosby would not appear at commencement.

Colleges award honorary degrees to those held in high esteem, people they hope their students emulate. For most colleges, Cosby no longer fits that description — and he hasn't for a while. Even before the conviction, more than 25 other universities had yanked his degrees, as the list of women who accused him of sexual misconduct grew into the double digits.

But Temple allowed theirs to stand, despite calls from on and off campus to act.

Within hours of his conviction, three more universities — Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore — revoked the entertainer's honorary degrees, offering a measure of public shaming to a man who was once almost universally revered.

Others, including West Chester University and Wesleyan, said they had begun the process to revoke. At West Chester, the vice president of university affairs made a request to rescind Cosby's degree shortly after the verdict, said university spokeswoman Nancy Santos Gainer. The honorary degree committee will review the request and make a recommendation to West Chester president Christopher Fiorentino, who is prepared to "take immediate action," she said.

Meanwhile, Yale, which has had a longstanding precedent of not revoking honorary degrees, said it would review that precedent in the wake of Cosby's conviction.

"The conduct of which Mr. Cosby was convicted is profoundly disturbing and deeply contrary to the mission of Yale and our expectations for behavior," the university said in a statement.

Regionally, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Swarthmore, Muhlenberg, Franklin & Marshall, Lehigh, Haverford,
Wilkes, Drew, and the University of Pittsburgh all had already rescinded Cosby's honorary degrees. In addition, California State University, the University of Connecticut, Bryant, George Washington, Boston University, Oberlin, Amherst, the University of Missouri, Brown, Tufts, Goucher, Fordham, Marquette, Baylor, the University of San Francisco, Springfield College, and Ohio State University have done the same.

Spelman College in 2015 ended a professorship endowed by Cosby and his wife, Camille.

At Temple, some students, faculty, and prominent alumni said earlier Friday that the school should have acted sooner.

The university should have pulled the degree "the minute he was convicted," said developer Bart Blatstein, a 1976 Temple graduate who has served on an advisory board at the school.

"I'm disappointed that the university didn't distance itself from Cosby a long time ago," Blatstein said. "I'm concerned that because there's not an arm's-length relationship between the leadership and Cosby, that we're still being embarrassed by it."

Blatstein was referring to O'Connor's legal representation of Cosby at the same time he served alongside Cosby on the Temple board of trustees. O'Connor is vice chairman of the Cozen O'Connor law firm.

Steve Newman, president of Temple's faculty union and an associate professor of English, said "it's long past time — it's actually something of a scandal — that Mr. Cosby's honorary degree wasn't rescinded before now."

Newman also said O'Connor's prior representation of Cosby against Constand, who had been operations director of the Temple women's basketball team when he assaulted her, made it worse. He said everyone deserves representation, but asserted it was a conflict of interest for O'Connor to serve on the board and represent Cosby at the same time.

"I think we owe Andrea Constand — and the other women who came forward — a great debt for having the courage, for refusing to be cowed, and for pressing on with these claims," Newman said.

Of O'Connor, Newman said: "I would ask the board [of trustees] to ask itself whether this is the person they wish to have in what is really the most powerful position on campus, and is in some ways the public face of Temple University."

Lenfest defended O'Connor and called him "a very effective chair."

"Everybody's entitled to representation whether they're guilty or not," Lenfest said. "You don't blame the lawyer for representing the bad guy."

Valerie I. Harrison, senior advisor for equity, diversity, and inclusion to Temple president Richard M. Englert, also defended O'Connor. She said providing legal representation shouldn't be confused with being "pro-accused" or "anti-survivor."

"Representing a client does not align the lawyer with the conduct or prevent the lawyer from standing up against the conduct," she said.  "For nearly 40 years, O'Connor has put his time and resources to work for countless students who have been marginalized and left out of meaningful educational opportunities. He has funded  scholarships, activities, and campus improvements."

Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Ohio University rescinded Bill Cosby's honorary degree. It was Ohio State University that rescinded it.