By Fleming Smith
The Board of Regents decided this week to maintain Charlie Rose’s honorary degree, bestowed in 2016, which came into question after knowledge emerged last year that Rose, former CBS reporter, sexually harassed multiple women throughout the course of his career.
In December 2017, a petition started by the Bairnwick Women’s Center garnered 685 signatures in favor of revoking Rose’s degree from students, faculty, alumni, and parents. Signers left 84 comments expressing their support for revocation. Several other schools, including Fordham University and the State University of New York, have rescinded honors given to Rose in light of the allegations against him, which Rose acknowledged to be true.
In a letter to student trustees Claire Brickson (C’18) and Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19), who presented the possibility of revoking Rose’s honorary degree to the Board last week as previously covered by The Purple, the Board thanked the trustees for their presentation but declined to revoke the degree. The letter can be read in full beneath this article.
The Board explained that the discussion preceding the decision was “serious, respectful, and quite lengthy.” The Board of Regents, the executive board of the University, includes 20 individuals, seven of which occupy positions in the Episcopal Church. Six women and 14 men serve on the Board, including Vice-Chancellor John McCardell as a non-voting member.
“We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men. At the same time, we do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual. In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path. We impose a penalty where appropriate, but we also offer forgiveness,” the Board wrote.
They added, “That said, it would be easy to condemn Mr. Rose and rescind the honorary degree. It is harder not to do so. The opportunity to forgive should always be taken. Condemnation has no place here.”
Speaking from a theological perspective, the Board then asked if there existed a “hierarchy of sin,” and implied that condemning Rose for his actions would then open avenues for condemnations of any individual. “Are we not all sinners?” the Board asked.
In the letter, the Board offered Brickson and Murdock their perspective on how “Sewanee culture” can continue to “respect the dignity of every human being.” They acknowledged that Murdock and Brickson’s presentation revealed that despite Sewanee’s effort, “we are clearly not there completely,” they wrote in the letter.
The Board highlighted what they recognized as Sewanee’s triumphs in this area, including hiring a Deputy Title IX Coordinator last fall, offering Bringing in the Bystander training during orientation, and the work of a Task Force on Sexual Climate.
They also pledged that the University will from now on ask of all honorary degree nominees the same questions asked of Bishop candidates. Bishop candidates are required to undergo a background check along with a psychological evaluation; they must answer several questions regarding their fitness for the honor.
“This was suggested by one of our Bishop Regents and struck the rest of us as providing an additional safeguard so as to avoid awarding an honorary degree to anyone whose past conduct was in any way questionable,” McCardell explained to The Purple.
The Board also suggested the ways students might act in the wake of this decision. “What (else) might students do? By way of example, the Thistle Farms initiative to aid battered women is under way in the current semester. The Board of Regents will match, dollar for dollar, the money raised by students in this effort,” the Board wrote.
Brickson expressed her dissatisfaction with the Board’s response on social media and to The Purple.
“I can outline the many issues I see with this argument, particularly its invocation of Christian values to justify inaction, the hypocrisy in claiming Sewanee is a place for forgiveness rather than condemnation, and the encouragement of students to give money to a related but external cause,” she said. “Know that I take this as a call to further action, so stay tuned for ways to get involved – opportunities that will require your time, action, and dedication to personal values – rather than just your money.”
The morning after the decision was released, a group of students plastered more than 100 posters around campus, many of which were later ripped down by non-students. Many posters included an excerpt from the letter by the Board, while others specifically called for the revocation of the degree and challenged Sewanee’s commitment to condemning sexual assault on campus.
Alexa Ewan (C’18), co-director of the Women’s Center, commented on the decision, “We do appreciate all of the progress that has been made by the university recently hiring a Deputy Title IX Coordinator and creating a Task Force on Sexual Climate, but in order for our campus to claim a stance against sexual assault and harassment, it must be consistent in its efforts. I believe that all people that are seeking or have received a degree from Sewanee, honorary or not, should be treated and punished equally for their actions.”
She continued, “While we can individually forgive a person for their actions, Charlie Rose did not just make one mistake but has been accused of sexually harassing eight women over two decades. I believe that if Charlie Rose was accused of plagiarism, a more blatant violation of our Honor Code, the Board of Regents would not have debated the revocation of his honorary degree and would not have invoked the language of condemnation and forgiveness, but taken the degree away without question.”
“By Sewanee: the University of the South deciding to not revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree, it is consequentially condoning his actions against women as something not worth punishment,” Ewan concluded.
Find the letter in full below:
“Dear Claire and Mary Margaret,
We are indebted to you both for your recent presentation to the Board of Regents regarding the honorary degree of Charlie Rose and aspects of Sewanee culture that bear examination. Your talk sparked a vigorous discussion by the Board that proved its members’ passion for Sewanee and led it to reflect on our unique values, which are not found amongst many colleges. For us, the central question is how do we embrace academic and ecclesiastical considerations and meld the two? What follows attempts to capture the essential elements of what was a serious, respectful, and quite lengthy discussion.
Respectfully, we submit that we should look to our own Honor Code for a tradition that combines both the academic and the ecclesiastical. In its essence, we do not condone perverse behavior. We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men. At the same time, we do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual. In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path. We impose a penalty where appropriate, but we also offer forgiveness. That said, it would be easy to condemn Mr. Rose and rescind the honorary degree. It is harder not to do so. The opportunity to forgive should always be taken. Condemnation has no place here.
Clarification comes in the question “Is there a hierarchy of sin?” Quickly followed by “Are we all not sinners?” Therein lies the ecumenical rub. If we condemn a person then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?
Moving forward, the most important part of your presentation gave us opportunity to revisit our own Sewanee culture which should be that “we respect the dignity of every human being.” From your talk we are clearly not there completely. Yet we are working hard, have been working hard for a very long time, and continue to seek ways of ensuring that our own campus culture and our own workplaces are models of right behavior. For example, we have added, this year, a Deputy Title IX Coordinator among whose duties will be to provide training across the campus at all levels. For the last three years new students have received Bringing in the Bystander training during Orientation. There is currently a Task Force on Sexual Climate, co-chaired by Dean Gentry and Title IX Coordinator Professor Kelly Malone and announced last April, which is revisiting and updating the 2012 Rethink report. The Regents will receive an interim report from this Task Force in June. Its recommendations will be presented to the Vice-Chancellor in the fall. Many of our administrative colleagues are actively involved through the Associated Colleges of the South in addressing issues of sexual misconduct. These are all substantive actions that will have real consequences for the University community. Finally, going forward, the University will ask of all honorary degree nominees the same questions asked of Bishop candidates.
What (else) might students do? By way of example, the Thistle Farms initiative to aid battered women is under way in the current semester. The Board of Regents will match, dollar for dollar, the money raised by students in this effort.
We thank you again and hope that despite our human condition we will aspire always to treat our brothers and sisters with respect.
Respectfully and on behalf of the Board of Regents,
Joseph DeLozier, Chairman
The Rt. Rev. John Howard, Chancellor
Margaret McLarty, Secretary
John M. McCardell, Jr., Vice-Chancellor”