Amid the cultural whirlwind of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, a nearby private university is grappling with its own debate after deciding not to rescind an honorary degree awarded to longtime journalist and television host Charlie Rose, who has been accused of sexual harassment.
Sewanee: University of the South, an Episcopalian campus in Sewanee, Tenn., granted Rose the honorary degree in 2016 on the basis of his journalistic accomplishments; he otherwise has no connection to the university. Rose delivered the university's baccalaureate address the same year.
Rose, former "CBS This Morning" co-host, was accused of sexual harassment by eight women, The Washington Post reported in November. Rose apologized for his inappropriate behavior and said he was greatly embarrassed, but said he didn't think the allegations were accurate.
Other universities, both public and private, already have revoked honors awarded to Rose, including Arizona State, Fordham, the University of Kansas and the State University of New York.
But some have decided not to do so, including his alma mater, Duke University, which awarded him an honorary degree in 2016.
It did, however, rescind Rose's Futrell Award, which recognizes outstanding Duke graduates working in journalism.
An online petition to rescind Rose's honorary degree at Sewanee launched in December and has gathered more than 1,000 signatures from students, parents and alumni. At the university's board of regents meeting on Feb. 6, two student trustees asked the board to consider revoking Rose's honorary degree.
"Thinking back on what has been the most difficult and defining things about college, it was pretty clear that's what we wanted to talk about — sexual assault and harassment," Claire Brickson, one of the student trustees, told the Times Free Press. "And then the Rose story broke in November it seemed like a good opportunity [to address] sexual harassment and assault on campus and something that [the board] can definitively do."
But by the end of the meeting, the board decided not to take action. In an open letter addressed the following week to Brickson and Murdock, the board explains that it does "not believe it is [its] place to condemn the individual."
"In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path," the letter reads. "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."
Brickson said the response was frustrating.
"It felt like we had put so much of ourselves into this 10 minutes and in response we got this kind of sloppy theological [response]," she said. "It seemed poorly thought through."
The morning after the letter was released, more than 100 posters showcasing excerpts of the board's letter were plastered across the campus and slid under professors' doors. And a week later, more than 200 students, faculty and community members gathered on campus, some with signs that read "Times up speak up Sewanee" and "We demand justice."
Open letters continue to be written to the board and university Vice Chancellor John McCardell.
McCardell, a non-voting member of the board of regents and the only local member, said he's perceived the response to the board's letter "with a mixture of understanding, frustration and disappointment."
"I certainly can understand how the actions of Mr. Rose have been responded to, and I would not, in the least, disagree with those who find that behavior, as alleged, unacceptable," he said.
Some have called for McCardell to apologize.
"[McCardell] has constantly tried to disassociate himself from this letter and this decision," said Sydney Peterson, one of the organizers of a student-led coalition called Speak Up Sewanee. "He signed on to a letter that forgave blatant sexual misconduct discrediting the stories of those women, as well as not addressing our concerns for us to acknowledge that he hears us, we have demanded an apology from him."
McCardell said that "a response to a decision that results in the posting of, truly, ad hominem — one might even say hateful and one could certainly say anonymous — signs all over campus the next morning, strikes me as an absence of civility and respect in a place where those traits are expected to inform any discussion and debate that we have."
Part of the issue the board is facing when discussing the revocation of Rose's honorary degree is that, while there is an "elaborate process for awarding degrees," there is no process by which the board would revoke a degree, McCardell said. Another problem is the question about what kind of precedent it would set.
"Where does that end?" McCardell asked.
In an effort to answer that question, McCardell said the faculty senate has formed a three-person committee to come up with a process, "so that if and when the university should ever decide to revoke a degree, there is a fair and thoughtful and thorough process that takes place."
But faculty members say the university is setting a precedent that "the harassment of women is less important than hosting a TV show."
In any case, the committee will present their policy to the board when they are ready, McCardell said, and at that point, the board will reconsider the revocation of Rose's honorary degree and possibly others, depending on the criteria that are agreed upon.
The board's next meeting is in June, but McCardell said it is possible the board will reconvene before then to discuss the policy and consider revoking Rose's honorary degree. Board Chairman Joe DeLozier agreed but said he's not sure when the policy might be complete or what date the board will meet again.
"We have all committed to discussions with students and faculty and alumni, as well as interested parties," DeLozier said.
Despite the ongoing debate, students and faculty have said they are confident the board will resolve the Rose conflict soon.
"Sewanee is a community, and when you come to the mountain, you're embraced into the community," Seminarian Bernadette Hartsough said. "A community has a voice, and we all have a role to play all voices are heard and considered, and that's what we're all praying and hoping for."
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