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ConcerniUS- Brown’s Publicity Stunt: Cosby, Erasure, and Institutional Violence

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“It has become clear, by his own admission in legal depositions that became public this summer, that Mr. Cosby has engaged in conduct with women that is contrary to the values of Brown and the qualities for which he was honored by the University in 1985. On Friday, September 25th, the University’s Board of Fellows held its first regularly scheduled meeting since that information became available. The Fellows deliberated and determined to revoke and rescind the honorary doctorate conferred upon Bill Cosby by Brown University.”

Last night, Brown University President Christina Paxson sent out a university-wide email about the University’s Board of Fellows’ decision to revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary doctorate. This decision comes in the wake of similar decisions made by Marquette University in Wisconsin and Fordham University in New York, as well as an online petition by David Ray ‘84 to rescind Cosby’s degree.

Paxson cites Cosby’s failure to reach the standards upon which Brown gave him an honorary degree- “embracing such cherished American values as honesty, fair play, love of family, and respect for humanity.” In her email, Paxson writes, “These are values that the Brown community holds dear and to which we consistently aspire to attain and exceed in our individual and collective lives.”

Cosby has clearly failed to uphold these standards; his violent and morally reprehensible actions, as well as pressure from the public eye, make it easy for Brown to deem him unfit for Brown’s community. But how does Brown itself fulfill the values it claims as its own? When Brown posits itself as an institution reputable enough to make these character judgements, it invisibilizes its violent history as well as its ongoing and oppressive day-to-day operations.

In 2013, Lena Sclove, an undergraduate at Brown, was raped and choked by another student. The university found Sclove’s rapist guilty, but ruled that he could return after a mere one-year suspension; Brown denied Sclove’s appeal. Consequently, she filed a Title IX complaint against the university, and since then, several survivors came forward to share their experiences with Brown’s failed sexual assault policies. Students last fall were once again forced to publicly attempt to hold the university accountable for its misconduct and negligence, and still, every year, Brown disempowers survivors and awards degrees to people who have not been held accountable for sexual assault.

How does Brown actually stand by survivors in the day-to-day, when rapists and assaulters are not high-profile celebrity figures, and when its decisions will not be lauded in mainstream media? How does Brown employ survivor-centered practices and community accountability measures? How does it ensure that it does not merely cast rapists and assaulters off campus, to potentially traumatize someone else?

More broadly, Brown’s legacy is seeped in violence and disregard for humanity, especially when that humanity is housed in a Black or brown body. Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice’s report provides a detailed account of Brown’s active participation and benefit from the transatlantic slave trade. Additionally, Brown is built on stolen Narragansett land, and continues in this tradition as it gentrifies surrounding neighborhoods; this expansion has devastated low-income communities of color, particularly the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point. Brown is also invested in a prison phone company, a $1.2 billion-a-year industry, that further exploits and marginalizes people who are incarcerated and their families. Four members of Brown’s Corporation– Brian T. Moynihan, Richard Friedman, Andrea Terzi Baum, and Nancy Fuld Neff– are serving or have served in leadership of companies in the Millions Shares Club, 36 companies that are major investors in the two largest private prison companies in the United States (Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group).

Rescinding Cosby’s degree is symbolic. It’s supposed to demonstrate Brown’s intolerance for all that fails to meet its impressive ethical standards.

But what are the values that Brown actually operates by? While I do not believe that Cosby should be honored anywhere, how does Brown enact its fictionalized wholesomeness and erase its violent history when it rescinds Cosby’s degree? I am uninterested in Brown’s symbolism; where is its structural change? Where is its implementation of survivor-centered sexual assault policy, its focus on community accountability? Where are its reparations to the Indigenous and Black communities whose ancestors built this campus? Brown cannot continue to sanctify itself; as it admonishes Cosby for his history of violence, how will it reckon with its rotting foundations and continued legacy as a traumatizing and oppressive institution?

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