Institutions Reassess Policies for Bestowing and Rescinding Honorary Degrees, Awards in Wake of Sexual Misconduct Scandals

Photo of a graduation cap on top of books next to a diploma

A recent surge in allegations of sexual misconduct by prominent journalists, entertainers, and politicians is forcing U.S. colleges and universities to examine the policies and procedures surrounding the awarding of honorary degrees. More than 10 men who have received such honors have recently been accused of sexual harassment or assault.

Tim McDonough
Tim McDonough

Timothy McDonough, vice president for government and public affairs for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, told The Associated Press (AP) that it has traditionally been rare for universities to rescind honors, but given the sweeping and surmounting allegations occurring nationwide, institutions of higher education are being confronted with increased pressure to respond. “It’s an issue that more colleges are facing now, and I think each one will look very carefully at these situations and make their own determination,” McDonough said.

For the several that have already revoked honorary degrees, most cite a fundamental conflict between the alleged behavior and the university’s core values. The decision is typically a mutual one between an institution’s board of trustees and its president or chancellor.

On Nov. 15, the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo rescinded an honorary doctorate awarded in 2000 to Harvey Weinstein following highly publicized reports of his sexual misconduct. SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson issued a statement saying that Weinstein’s actions “conflict with the core values of our university system.”

Additionally, on Nov. 23, Kansas University rescinded its William Allen Foundation National Citation Award from Charlie Rose after an article in The Washington Post detailed his inappropriate conduct toward women. In a statement, a spokesperson for the foundation said that “Rose does not exemplify the ideals of this award,” which include “service to [the] profession and community.”

Other institutions have been more hesitant to take immediate action based on a variety of factors. Georgetown University, for example, declined to comment to the AP regarding an honorary degree awarded to Charlie Rose in 2015, but a university representative did say that it has never revoked such degrees. Spokeswoman Alexandra Day for The Julliard School in New York told the AP that the university did not rescind an honorary doctorate awarded to Kevin Spacey in 2000 because decisions are based “on the information known about the [honoree] at the time of the award.”

Part of the decision to revoke an honorary degree comes from pressure from students, faculty, and outside critics, as evidenced by the more than 20 schools that rescinded honorary degrees to comedian Bill Cosby in 2016. Within hours of NBC’s firing of Today show host Matt Lauer, alumni of his alma mater, Ohio University, rallied to strip him of all accolades, including the Medal of Merit awarded to him in 1999. So far, the university has not taken any action to do so.

Many argue that these situations suggest a need for more formal processes surrounding the awarding and rescission of honorary degrees, as responses to allegations often seem arbitrary and inconsistent. For example, Ohio University promptly removed Roger Ailes name from a campus newsroom and rejected a donation of $500,000 from the Fox News founder and alumnus following news of his sexual misconduct, but the administration has not yet responded to the news involving Matt Lauer.

Complicating matters further is the fact that many honorary degree recipients also donate large sums of money to some colleges and universities. In the case of Harvey Weinstein, SUNY Buffalo State was careful to distinguish that he never donated any of his personal funds to the university and that a $22,750 donation made by his company Miramax in 2005 — prior to the recent allegations — was used for scholarships.

For some schools, the current and ongoing outbreak of sexual assault and harassment accusations is a call to action to develop formal policies for bestowing and rescinding awards. Following requests by students and alumni last spring to rescind a 2001 honorary degree given to former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Marist College in New York began drafting a policy for how to handle such situations. Other schools may begin to follow the lead of the University of Virginia and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which forbid the awarding of honorary degrees entirely.