By Fleming Smith
After the University’s Board of Regents decided to maintain Charlie Rose’s honorary degree on February 15, citing a reluctance to “condemn the individual,” the Regents and Vice-Chancellor John McCardell have been heavily criticized by students, faculty, alumni, and seminarians.
Charlie Rose, who delivered Sewanee’s Baccalaureate address in 2016, admitted last year to sexually harassing several women over the course of his career. Calls to revoke Rose’s honorary degree from Sewanee began in December 2017 with an online petition that has now garnered more than 1,000 signatures, surpassing its goal.
In early February, student trustees Claire Brickson (C’18) and Mary Margaret Murdock (C’19) presented the idea of revoking Rose’s degree to the Board of Regents. The following week, the Board sent them a letter detailing their decision to maintain Rose’s degree, stressing the role of forgiveness and citing both the school’s Honor Code and theological reasons. Read The Purple’s coverage of Brickson and Murdock’s presentation here and coverage of the Regents’ response here.
A group of more than 40 students quickly organized to protest the decision, rising early the next morning to hang more than 200 posters across campus, including at Chen Hall, McCardell’s residence. Many posters included excerpts from the letter sent to Brickson and Murdock. The posters highlighted students’ disappointment not only with the decision to maintain Rose’s degree, but also what they viewed as the University’s failure to properly condemn sexual assault on campus.
Some of the posters specifically targeted McCardell, asking, “VC John McCardell: Why won’t you condemn sexual assaulters?” McCardell, a non-voting member of the Board, was one of the signatories of the Regents’ letter.
When asked to comment, McCardell declined to speak to The Purple, citing concerns of bias. However, in a February 20 article from Inside Higher Ed, McCardell said that the posters violated “rules of civil behavior.” He added, “I’ve got a thick skin. I’ve seen this stuff and worse. I am more disappointed than hurt.”
The letter drafted by the Board of Regents to explain their decision quickly spread on social media, shocking many alumni and students. A number of alumni said that they would not donate to their alma mater again until Rose’s degree was revoked.
In the wake of the decision, Emily Badgett (C’20) and Hollis Adams (C’19) created a fundraiser for local charity Thistle Farms, which aids female survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction, as an alternative for alumni who no longer wish to donate to the University. In their letter, the Regents promised to match all funds raised for Thistle Farms as an encouragement for students to take action against sexual violence.
Beyond social media, other news outlets quickly picked up the story, in some cases after being contacted by students hoping to spread awareness of their opposition to the decision. Along with other news sources, Nashville Public Radio covered the story, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an editorial by Brickson in addition to commentary from education writer Maureen Downey.
In the week following the decision, several divisions of the University released open letters to the Board of Regents, including the college faculty, the School of Theology tenured faculty, and the seminarians. Each letter questioned the rationale of the decision and encouraged the University to revoke Rose’s degree and to do more to condemn sexual assault on campus.
Members of the Board of Regents that The Purple contacted declined to comment.
Some students hope to find a way of overturning the decision in lieu of changing the Regents’ minds. The University Senate, comprised of 75 individuals, including senior faculty members, deans, and McCardell, will meet this Monday afternoon, February 26. However, the Senate does not have the unilateral power to revoke Rose’s honorary degree.
Faculty members plan to start a discussion at the meeting on creating a policy for revoking honorary degrees. At this time, no such policy exists, as the University has never revoked an honorary degree in its history.
“I do not believe that the Senate has the authority to revoke an honorary degree,” explained Professor Pamela Macfie, a faculty member on the Senate as well as a member of the committee that decides honorary degrees. Professors Mishoe Brennecke and Bran Potter are the other faculty members on this committee, which includes Regent members.
She continued, “The Senate would certainly have the practical authority, or moral authority, to make a resolution about whether such a degree should be rescinded or whether the honorary degrees committee should take up earnest discussion of whether a degree should be rescinded.”
Macfie, Potter, and Brennecke have begun working, with faculty input, to create a draft that will “spell out a procedure whereby consideration of rescinding a degree and proper sequence of discussions that would advance such consideration would come into being.”
Such a draft would have to be presented to the honorary degree committee and likely the Regents at large in order to gain approval.
The three senators also collected faculty opinions and recommendations, with names redacted, to be circulated in the Senate. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 30 recommendations had been submitted. “Not all faculty opinion has recommended that this degree, or any degree, should be rescinded,” Macfie said.
She stressed that the process to create the draft will take time and it will not be submitted at Monday’s meeting.
Students in favor of revoking Rose’s degree emphasize that the issue extends far beyond the degree itself. Many students have expressed a desire for increased transparency about how sexual assault is handled on campus and feel that the University has failed in condemning sexual assault and harassment.
“Our point is to address sexual assault in the campus climate, not to attack Charlie Rose, not to attack the Vice-Chancellor. We simply want to illuminate this issue,” explained Sydney Peterson (C’18), co-director of the Bairnwick Women’s Center, during a February 18 meeting that included students, faculty, and seminarians.
At the meeting, students formed a Leadership Coalition consisting of seniors Eliana Perozo, Claire Brickson, Peterson, Cotie San, and Student Government Association President Brandon Iracks-Edelin, as well as Lala Hilizah (C’21) and seminarian Bernadette Hartsough (T’20). After communicating mostly through social media, more than 60 community members gathered in person to plan the next steps in challenging the University’s decision.
“Talking to my friends, I saw that the decision was a slap in the face to many people who have experienced sexual assault. There was no transparency between the administration and the students,” Iracks-Edelin commented at the meeting. “I don’t think this decision was a reflection of the twenty-first century Sewanee.”
Many of those in attendance used the meeting to express their shock and discomfort with the Regents’ decision not to revoke Rose’s degree, especially the letter’s refusal to “condemn the individual” in such cases.
“I think it’s very damaging towards the relationship between the students and administration, because students do not feel supported, especially those who have gone through sexual assault. I feel like they cannot talk about what’s happened to them; they don’t feel like they can be safe here, and that’s really damaging,” Maria Trejo (C’20) said at the meeting.
The students in attendance heavily criticized the University’s procedure for handling sexual assault cases on campus. “I think [the Board’s decision to not revoke Rose’s degree] represents Sewanee’s continued response to sexual assault, which is basically, ‘That sucks, but there’s nothing we can do, and we’re not going to protect you and your rights.’ The general response seems to always be, ‘There’s not enough proof,’ and they seem to invalidate people’s stories all the time,” San described.
The Leadership Coalition recently created a website, speakupsewanee.com, to address issues on Sewanee’s campus, including sexual assault and revoking Rose’s degree. The website details the previous actions taken by students in response to the Regents’ decision, links to the petition created in December 2017, and offers resources from news stories and educational sources.
On February 22, the Coalition organized a campus protest, covered here by The Purple. More than 200 people attended. Student leaders asked all students and faculty members present to boycott wearing their gowns until Rose’s honorary degree has been revoked.
Describing Speak Up Sewanee and the Leadership Coalition to The Purple, Perozo commented, “Our power truly does derive from the most marginalized; we’re organizing from the margins, and when I say that I mean students, I mean freshmen, I mean sophomores, I mean the 35 women of color that showed up Friday morning to put up those posters. I mean myself.”
She added, “While we can’t always understand where the other is coming from, we’re committed to listening to one another. This is what democracy looks like. It does not look hierarchical, it is not 20 people making a decision for over 1,000 people.” She referred specifically to the Board of Regents in this case.
Perozo also wanted “to acknowledge that this is not an attack on McCardell’s character, but rather an attack on this governing body altogether.” She soon clarified, “Not an attack, but merely a question. A question as far as, who are you really protecting? Yourselves? Our image? Or our students?”