February 24, 2018
Dear Members of the Board of Regents of the University of the South,
With much gratitude for the degree I received from Sewanee and for what I have learned from students, staff, faculty and other members the broad Sewanee community for over 20 years, I write to you from my residence in North Carolina. After reflection and consideration of my own ongoing learning, I ask you to revoke the honorary degree conferred upon Charlie Rose in 2016, altering your recent decision on this matter. The honorary degree awarded to Charlie Rose should be revoked because his admitted sexually harassing behavior was harmful, disrespectful, and repeated. Faculty and staff have joined student voices to express that such behavior cannot be overlooked, though other accomplishments have previously drawn admiration to an individual. An honorary degree alerts the community to look to the honored person for inspiration in striving for comparable accomplishments in whatever field of service. These individuals are not models of perfection; however, serious wrongdoing can diminish the power of positive influence. Rescinding the honorary degree acknowledges the significance of the wrongdoing, as many in Sewanee have already noted. You are not being asked to evaluate the morality of all who have been honored in the past; nor even submit all to morality testing in the future. No one is perfect. Not all are inspirational. In light of recent information, the University should not continue to honor Charlie Rose, “a son of the South who has established himself as an architect of American culture.” (CBS This Morning, May 9, 2016, Retrieved February 21, 2018)
Having reviewed the correspondence published this month by The Sewanee Purple and the Atlanta Journal Constitution between yourselves and significant portions of the community you serve, represent, and lead, I conclude that you must already be re-thinking your earlier decision and the reasons you relied upon. Just reading the names of the individuals who signed letters supporting the revocation of the honorary degree would cause one to reflect again and to follow their recommendation. I stand with those individuals out of respect for their integrity and collective wisdom, and I also look at the face of your letter announcing your initial decision not to revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree. The reasoning expressed therein is insufficient to justify maintaining the degree. Not the desire not to condemn, nor the dictate that we forgive one another, nor an awareness that we all fall short of ideal, not even the hope that alternative responses will suffice can stand against the reasoned voices of those who have spoken in favor of revoking the degree.
Invoking the University’s Honor Code in your letter, you said, “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.” I earnestly argue that it is the place of a university administration to choose not to honor those who commit sexual assault. You state that “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.” Condemnation is not really the issue; however, nor is forgiveness. Charlie Rose was honored by the University, and new information has been revealed that would have prevented him from receiving that honor. Mr. Rose admitted to many of the accusations made against him; his apologies have been equivocal. Were he actually a student enrolled at Sewanee when the sexual assaults and harrassment took place, he likely would not be allowed to remain on campus. Were he to apply to become a student at a University today, his behavior would give any admissions committee reason to deny admission. Had you known of his misconduct, even though he was not a student at the University, you would not have awarded him an honorary degree.
You call the community to reject condemnation and instead accept the opportunity or take up the challenge of forgiveness. Yet, severe consequences often do go hand in hand with human forgiveness. Any administrator will tell numerous stories of the love they have for students who were disciplined for having behaved reprehensibly, those students who have repented, as well as those who have not. Despite personal forgiveness, the administrators must also impose consequences. We can also confuse a call to forgiveness, which is a universally applicable call, with the issuance of a legal “pardon,” which implies freedom from punishment following a conviction and is appropriate only when justice requires it or when there is doubt about whether the individual was wrongly accused. This is not such a situation.
Although I am pleased to learn of the ongoing task force, student orientation trainings, and recent hire related to improving sexual climate on campus, and I applaud the Regents’ commitment to support the students’ fundraising on behalf of Thistle Farms, these efforts do not present a reason for maintaining Charlie Rose’s honorary degree. If anything, these steps toward a safer and more respectful campus make the decision to rescind the honor conferred upon Charlie Rose inevitable. When we acknowledge our own inadequacies and errors, we need not see the rescinding of this honor as impossible, but rather view it as an important step forward, despite the fact that we have all failed to do the right thing so many times in the past. Combining this action with other current and future efforts shows that we are trying to improve our own behavior and reach toward a vision for Sewanee and the world where dignity and respect are afforded to all, and honor is given to those who will inspire us to keep building that vision.
Julie King Murphy