Revoking an earned degree for non-academic reasons

Bill Cosby has been awarded numerous honorary doctorate degrees over the years. As the publicity surrounding his misdeeds has grown, more and more of these honorary degrees have been revoked.

However, Bill Cosby does have an earned doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts. If UMass wanted to further distance themselves from Cosby, could they revoke this degree as well? Or is it safe, since the reason they’d be revoking it has nothing to do with academic fraud?

Zev Steinhardt

If Umass determined that Cosby had violated some form of the student code of conduct, then yes they could revoke his awarded degree. It may be a stretch to say his actions after he was a student were violations, but I’m sure they could revoke it if they really wanted to and could probably come up with a thinly veiled reason for doing so.

Universities have their own policies on awarding and revocation of degrees. Naturally, this means they can award or revoke degrees largely as they will (though state schools may have additional legal requirements through the states), though most universities will be understandably leery of doing so unless it turns out academic fraud was involved.

My own alma mater has always reserved the right to revoke degrees for any reason, though it has not done so except in cases of academic fraud pertaining to the awarding of the particular degree. I believe this is consistent with most schools.

*As an aside, Cosby did give the commencement address at my school once but the negotiations took a couple years because the school has never awarded an honorary degree. This was a sticking point for Cosby - he demanded one but was ultimately willing to go without it after some other concessions. He did make a brief mention of it in his speech.

Generally, convicted felons earning/keeping their degrees is not considered a bad thing. I doubt they’d do so in this case, unless it turns out Cosby’s behavior was pertinent to how he earned his degree the first time. If our society thinks revocation of degrees should be a punishment, we should add that to the books. It smacks a bit of mob justice to tack on unrelated penalties outside a legal framework.

Personally, I’d disagree with revoking any degrees he’s already earned (I don’t care about the honorary ones). A school should not and mostly is not held responsible for the subsequent misdeeds of its former students.

I think that if UMass tried to revoke the degree that Bill Cosby earned, he would have a good case for a lawsuit against them.

He earned that degree, and unless they can prove some academic fraud while he was a student*, he is entitled to it. His lawyer would argue that it is an unlawful taking of something he has earned. Also, they could argue discriminatory enforcement – surely there are other UMass graduates who have been convicted of worse crimes, even murder, but who have not had their degrees revoked. His race makes that an even more potent argument. And could he demand the return of his tuition payments?

Of course, this isn’t at all likely to happen.
There’s no particular benefit to UMass to do this, and possible legal repercussions. Just thinjibg of the volume of possible abused wives of UMass graduates demanding revoking of their degrees would be intimidating.

And there’s no particular benefit to Cosby of suing them over revoking his earned degree. He’s 80 years old; he won’t be applying for a job using that degree.

*Even for that, the concept of statute of limitations would probably be considered relevant by a court.

I’d like to see any case where an earned degree was revoked because of actions that occurred after graduation. That’d be pretty B.S., and could result in veiled threats for not making alumni donations.

There were several attempts even before the sex scandal broke to get UMass to revoke Cosby’s degrees. It was awarded under “non-standard” circumstances, to say the least.

All to cozy up to a rich and famous person. Now that such coziness is no longer desirable, a real investigation by the college might finally bring some sense to the whole sad affair. Esp. the part where the joke of a thesis wasn’t even written by him.

Cosby would hardly be in a position to win a lawsuit about this. The deposition would not put his education in a good light.

(Hypocrite that he is, he would criticize others for getting actual degrees but with poor grades.)

I’ve never heard of a case of someone’s academic degree being revoked for criminal activity that took place after the degree was awarded. It’s just not something that’s done.

The person named in your cite has an axe to grind about education and teacher training in general, and simply uses Cosby as his sharpening stone.

On the contrary, the thrust of that article is the proposition the sentiment that "‘I think it would be wonderful if Cosby staged a media event similar to the one that took place when he earned his doctorate,’ says Reginald G. Damerell. ‘Only this time he would give back the degree to show that he finally realizes it stands for nothing. I hope that Bill Cosby would raise consciousness about how lousy schools of education are.’

In other words, the point is not that Cosby’s degree was awarded undeservingly as opposed to most education degrees, but rather that Cosby’s degree is like most other education degrees in being worthless.

Leaving Cosby aside, the case for retracting a degree earned in the usual way, take course, do a thesis if required, etc., would be awfully weak unless actual academic fraud could be proved. Perhaps in Cosby’s case it could be. Had anyone looked at his thesis? They are invariably public.

Is this because the University of Massachusetts system is publicly-funded, or is there a more general entitlement to a degree which would bind on private universities as well?

Again, this doesn’t seem quite relevant to a school, as opposed to a government.

The principle of “no takebacks”?

They can’t take your education away from you, and they can’t edit history to make it so you were never associated with their institution, but your diploma has their good name on it, and, while the piece of paper is undoubtedly yours, their name is theirs, and they have a vested interest in not having it associated with slime. So it’s in their interest to say that they do not consider you a graduate of their program, as if you were a common dropout.

Earned degrees, whether a doctorate or an associate’s, are typically awarded based on the candidate fulfilling certain clearly specified requirements. If a person satisfies all the requirements, and the institution, without disputing this, refuses to grant the degree, or revokes it once granted, there would be grounds for a legal challenge, wouldn’t there?

He’d still presumably have the degree certificate if somehow he wanted to use it when applying for a job. Unless the uni sends someone round to stamp ‘void’ on it.

That’s not the way it works (at least in my experience, which is mainly confined to academic jobs). If a job requires a particular degree, you don’t show them your personal copy of a diploma or degree certificate. That’d be too easy to fake anyway. If documentation is required, you arrange to have your official transcripts sent from the institution that granted your degree.

Ah, I’ve not worked in academia, just medical & industry labs, showing the certificate is all they asked.

Are you sure it is in the interest of the university to set that precedent?

Would you prefer to earn a degree from an institution that had a history of arbitrarily revoking degrees after the fact, or one where you were confident that once you had earned your degree you would have it for life? Sure, it’s just for rapists now, but once they’ve demonstrated that they can and will take away a qualification at their sole discretion, the idea of spending time and money to earn a degree from that university suddenly seems a whole lot less attractive.

I actually agree with you, and I think this kind of thing (where something might be good politics but bad precedent) is an example of where deontological ethics is useful: Having general rules, phrased as duties to ideas such as academic freedom and intellectual independence from politics, can help justify not doing the thing which seems politically expedient, perhaps even politically necessary, in this one specific case. Not that it would satisfy everyone, but many people do understand and respect the idea of taking a stand on principles.

My immediate thought would be breach of contract: “You pay us money, do all the work we ask you to do, pass the tests, and if do all that satisfactorily, at the end we give you a degree.” That sounds like a unilateral contract to me.

Unless buried in the application papers is some “offer voidable if at any time in the rest of your life you do something we don’t approve of”, my off-the-cuff reaction is that he’d have an action in contract law.
Not meant as actual legal advice, but simply to comment on a matter of public interest.