Update from President Knapp on Sexual Assault

University will rescind Bill Cosby’s honorary degree given the ongoing controversy’s effect on survivors.

January 11, 2016

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To the GW Community:

I write to let you know what the university has been doing and is continuing to do in response to the ongoing problem of sexual assault that afflicts every college campus, including ours.

In September 2014, then-president of the Student Association Nick Gumas and I went to the White House to attend President Obama’s and Vice President Biden’s launch of the “It’s on Us” campaign, which asked all of us to take personal responsibility for preventing sexual assault on America’s campuses. Our student organizations, including our athletic teams, responded with a series of inspiring video messages, and our engagement in the campaign continues this year. 

The following month (October 2014), we appointed Rory Muhammad as Title IX coordinator; last March, the university hired Carrie Ross as its first assistant director for sexual assault prevention and response. Since then, Mr. Muhammad and Ms. Ross have played an important role in working with survivors and student leaders to develop a mandatory training program that is now firmly in place. That program includes mandatory sessions during Colonial Inauguration and Welcome Week, as well as online training for freshmen in the summer preceding their arrival.

In light of these efforts, students last fall raised the question of whether, given the numerous allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, the university should rescind the honorary doctoral degree it conferred on Mr. Cosby in 1997. Last October, we issued a statement indicating that honorary degrees were conferred at a moment in time, based upon what was known about the candidate at that time, and it had never been the university’s practice to rescind a degree in response to later information. Since then, however, I have continued to discuss this issue with students as well as colleagues. What has particularly moved and impressed me has been the argument that, whatever may ultimately be determined about the guilt or innocence of Mr. Cosby in a court of law, the controversy itself has become a cause of renewed distress for our students and alumni who are survivors of sexual assault. That makes this case different, in my considered judgment, from other cases in which the assessment of a degree candidate might be altered by subsequent information or events. I have therefore decided that the university will rescind Mr. Cosby’s honorary degree.

This action by itself will not end the scourge of sexual assault on this or any other campus. We will need to continue working as a community in the spirit of the “It’s on Us” campaign. If you have suggestions about how we might strengthen our efforts, or if you wish to find out more about what we are already doing, please visit haven.gwu.edu.

Thank you.