Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and a University Professor of Public Service.
I was the GW president back in the day when we gave Bill Cosby an honorary degree. At the time, he was arguably the most popular Commencement speaker of my tenure. His remarks at graduation were received with an ovation. All attending cheered him. He was celebrated for his contributions to American culture and for his comic genius.
It would appear, on the basis of information only now revealed, that he had, in addition to his artistic gifts, a dark and troubling and tragic hidden side. Had we known of that we would not have awarded him plaudits. But we did not.
All today seem well-informed of Mr. Cosby’s seemingly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. His life and reputation lie in tatters. One can only speculate on the mental health issues that may underlie the behavior that numerous women have reported regarding Mr. Cosby.
People of accomplishment can, as we know, also have criminal or evil characteristics. I think of Ezra Pound, a man of towering poetic, artistic and critical gifts, and a fascist war criminal who lived out his life in a prison hospital.
What good would it do to void Mr. Cosby’s diploma? Who actually celebrates it today? He is revealed and reviled. I am not keen on trying to rewrite history. We must own our past and learn from it. There is no Platonic device for awarding honors. We do our best to celebrate the good. We work with the best information available. But being human, we have erred in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future.
We need to redouble our efforts to avoid such failures of judgment in the years to come but must in humility appreciate our limitations and permit experience to inform our thinking. There is a rough charm to the proposal that we should recall our degree from Mr. Cosby, but it is a blunt instrument that does not do real justice to the dreadful challenge it seeks to address. It does not actually get to right. It provides no real comfort to the abused.
Mr. Cosby knows that we no longer esteem him. Everybody knows. He is down. He is out. The degree is as null and void as it can be. It is self-executing. However much he may deserve it, I am disinclined to kick him again to underscore our own virtue. It’s too easy.
We, on the other hand, must do the hard work to see that we now protect all members of our community from abuse and violation. We must as individuals and as a community look after each other and keep each other safe. We can’t do much about the past but we can do a great deal to craft the future and cure the world.
“It’s on us” can be a facile slogan or a North Star to guide our behavior. Which alternative we elect and how well we execute is the real message that we should send to Mr. Cosby.