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Grads behaving badly: yet more honorary degree revocations

It's increasingly common for universities to revoke honorary degrees. Paul Greatrix goes over the latest to lose their status.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

The revocation of honorary degrees is becoming ever more common. As previously noted here, since Keele University withdrew the Honorary Degree it had awarded to Kurt Waldheim in 1980 and the landmark revocation of Robert Mugabe’s honorary by Edinburgh University back in 2007, the revocation of such awards has gone from a trickle to a flood.

The most striking revocations have been those of Bill Cosby’s 60 plus honorary degrees – he may only have a handful left now. More on him below.

A piece in Inside Philanthropy commented on some of the more recent honorary degree revocations, noting that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a number of prominent men facing allegations of sexual misconduct had also received honorary degrees from US universities. There are particular challenges for universities seeking to revoke these degrees though:

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.

It is now though much more common for honorary degrees to be rescinded as previous misdemeanours of various celebrities, politicians and sports stars emerge and necessitate reappraisal of their merits. This does rather suggest that universities should perhaps be a little more diligent in their investigations into the track records of individuals they intend to honour to ensure there are no skeletons likely to emerge from the closet of the newly honoured individual. Alternatively, as some have suggested, universities could decide to defer the award of an honorary degree until some years after the proposed recipient’s death in order to be more confident that there are no unsavoury issues about their conduct waiting to be made public. Either way, it would probably be better for everyone if there were more genuinely worthy honorary degree beneficiaries and fewer revocations.

Latest revocations

Some recent revocations which may not come as a huge surprise:

Following Brunei’s decision to implement stoning to death under anti-LGBT laws the Sultan of Brunei, who has acquired many awards and riches over time, has had his honorary from the University of Aberdeen revoked.

And, as Inside Higher Ed reported, the Catholic University of America has revoked the honorary degree awarded to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, following sexual abuse allegations. The University of Notre Dame followed suit.

The University of the South, in common with several other universities, rescinded the degree it had awarded to the disgraced journalist Charlie Rose.

The Cosby show continues – there are yet more Cosby revocations happening:

Yet another one

The College of William and Mary has withdrawn his degree.

The University of Cincinnati has asked for its honorary back.

Northwestern University gave Cosby an honorary back in 1997. They’ve now said they want him to return it.

And three different parts of the University of Maryland have rescinded the awards issued to Cosby.

The University of South Carolina has also revoked.

Ohio State too has decided it no longer wishes to honour the disgraced star and has revoked.

Temple, Carnegie Mellon and Johns Hopkins also revoked.

And Yale too. Which looks like the first time it has ever revoked an honorary.

He can’t have many left now.

Even more revocations

The list of revocations doesn’t end here.

In addition to revoking Cosby’s honorary, the University of Pennsylvania has decided to revoke the honorary degree it awarded to a casino magnate Steve Wynn, following what it called “decades-long acts of sexual harassment and intimidation.”

Meanwhile in Kenya Francis Atwoli, Secretary-General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions, accused unnamed senior government officials of putting pressure on Masinde Muliro University to revoke an honorary degree he was to be awarded at a recent graduation ceremony. The honour was therefore revoked before it could actually be conferred.

The University of North Carolina Asheville has rescinded an honorary degree awarded to a local businessman who had returned his degree following criminal allegations.

According to the Herald, Edinburgh University has been urged to reconsider an honorary degree awarded to Vyacheslav Nikonov the head of a Kremlin “propaganda” unit in the wake of the Skripal double poisoning spy scandal.

And the Plymouth Herald reported that former ‘captain of industry’ Charles Howeson “ripped up his honorary degree” before the University of Plymouth had a chance to revoke it following a conviction for indecent assault.

Albertus Magnus College announced recently it was withdrawing the honorary degree that the Catholic college gave to Gordon Edelstein after reports of inappropriate behaviour. The allegations included that after Albertus Magnus initially announced that it was giving the 2017 honorary degree to Edelstein, he twice joked to a couple of staffers that it’s about what he had done with the nuns, the New York Times reported. 

Following sexual misconduct allegations, Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News host, has had his honorary degree from Marist College revoked.

Finally, this just in, the University of Pennsylvania awarded honorary degrees at the beginning of the 20th Century to the German Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II and Johann Heinrich Von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador to the United States and Mexico from 1908 to 1917. The Penn Trustees struck both Von Bernstorff and the Kaiser from the roll of honorary degree recipients in 1918, making them the only two people in Penn history to have their degrees revoked. And possibly the earliest honorary degree revocations on record too.

No double there will be many more revocations to come.

One response to “Grads behaving badly: yet more honorary degree revocations

  1. The process by which people are selected for honorary degrees obviously needs some form of due diligence. My own experience of this was at the University of Stirling where for a while I ‘serviced’ the Hon Degrees Cttee. One nomination stands out, what appeared to be an innocuous businessman, but just a little bit of research on my part showed up a somewhat dubious role in enemy military during WWII. The members were duly horrified and the nomination was withdrawn. Heaven knows what might have surfaced later on. Hopefully these days there is a bit more thought given to the process, in all our universities.

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