While the University’s Board of Regents congregated during the week of February 5, student trustees Claire Brickson (C’18) and Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19) presented to the Board the possibility of revoking the honorary degree given by the University to Charlie Rose, former CBS reporter accused of sexual harassment.
The decision was not released that same week, but The Sewanee Purple will continue to cover the story online, and a decision is expected soon. According to Brickson, the Board of Regents seemed undecided during their presentation, and the ensuing discussion was reportedly long and contentious.
“I think this will be a difficult decision for the Board of Regents, considering how much Sewanee values tradition. But that’s precisely why it matters so much – this is a symbol with the power to clearly state the side of history on which Sewanee will stand,” Brickson said to The Purple.
In the Advent 2017 semester, an online petition started by the Bairnwick’s Women Center garnered more than 600 signatures from a wide range of concerned signers, including students, faculty, alumni, parents, and staff.
As student trustees, Brickson and Murdock recommended that the Board of Regents choose to revoke Rose’s degree. “Revoking Charlie Rose’s degree sends a clear statement to those 17 individuals who reported rapes on campus in 2016, that we support their decision to come forward,” Brickson and Murdock wrote in their speech to the Regents.
In their speech, Murdock and Brickson also noted the increase in sexual assaults reported at Sewanee in recent years, from 10 in 2014 to 14 in 2015 and 17 in 2016. They stressed that these statistics reflect an increase in reporting, not sexual assaults, and that such an increase should not be seen as a negative.
“Although it’s easy to think that increased reports could be a detriment to the community by deterring potential parents and students, data disagrees: the top reporting schools are also among the most prestigious. Given this cultural moment, schools that actively acknowledge and address assault are seen as realistic, not irresponsible,” Brickson and Murdock told the Board of Regents.
In their speech, the student trustees acknowledged the concern that revoking Rose’s degree could set a dangerous precedent; they suggested that perhaps a stipulation could be added that degrees cannot be revoked posthumously.
Murdock and Brickson also used a PowerPoint presentation to fortify their argument. The presentation begins by quoting former Vice-Chancellor Alexander Guerry, who said, “Nothing is more out of place in an institution of higher learning than indignities to the human body.”
The presentation drew from many different perspectives on the relevance of Rose’s honorary degree to Sewanee life. Brickson and Murdock quoted alumni and parents who voiced their discomfort on the online petition and cited other universities that had rescinded Rose’s degree and their justifications for doing so.
Murdock and Brickson also emphasized the role of the Episcopal Church in challenging abuse and harassment. In her speech, Murdock wrote, “I deeply desire to be and am a member of a church that I feel has always supported me as a woman. I feel that by [revoking Rose’s degree], my alma mater can make all women feel more comfortable and empowered. By making this statement as an institution of the church, it will speak that Sewanee desires to make all members of its community feel safe and empowered.”
In their speech, Murdock and Brickson encouraged the Regents to revoke Rose’s degree, deeming his harassment of women as behavior unworthy of a degree at the University of the South.
“The Washington Post reported that Rose excused his behavior by saying: ‘I’m from the South, we’re touchers.’ As the University of the South, and an affiliate of the Episcopal Church, Sewanee is looked to as a typification of Southern culture, a responsibility we otherwise embrace in traditions like the honor code, class dress, and Sewanee Angels,” Murdock and Brickson explained.
“Inaction on this issue affirms a belief that men can use ‘Southern status’ as an excuse for making women feel, at the very least, uncomfortable – a tradition Charlie Rose has presented Sewanee with the opportunity to reject,” Murdock and Brickson told the Board of Regents.
As of February 13, a decision has not been released, but check The Sewanee Purple’s website and social media for updates on this story.