Bill Cosby as a Lesson on Accountability for NYU

Melanie Pineda

In mid-July, WSN reported that NYU’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. The decision comes after years of sexual assault allegations against the disgraced actor, and almost three months after he was convicted on three charges of indecent assault. The lag in NYU’s response time was caused by the timing of the board meetings since Cosby’s conviction, according to University spokesperson John Beckman. Although this may have some grounds, a recent instance of NYU lagging in holding sexual assaulters accountable should raise alarm to other possible explanations for this delay. This clouded behavior by the university cannot continue, and must not become a pattern, for the sake of our student body and the institution as a whole.

Cosby’s story is one that victims have heard countless times before. Someone is accused of assault, claims from the victims are not enough, and only after these abusers are called out by some greater institution are said claims deemed believable. NYU is not exempt from this toxic archetype. This past spring semester, Liberal Studies Professor J. Ward Regan abruptly stopped teaching after NYU Local published an article detailing a relationship between Regan and an underage student in the 1990s. Whether he resigned or was fired remains to be unclear. If this publication were the first that NYU was hearing about these allegations, then the sudden end to Regan’s classes would be something worth praising. The reality is, however, that the disturbing details surrounding this case were made public in 2017 by the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to NYU Local, the NYU administration was made aware of these allegations at the time and, shockingly, took no action against Regan or alerting his current students.

Rather than stand in support of the victim, the administration remained silent. At this point, the wellbeings of students was put in danger, and for what? So that whatever was left of this man’s tarnished reputation could be preserved? So that NYU wouldn’t be held responsible for employing an alleged assaulter in a year when the #MeToo movement filled headlines with shocking sexual assault allegations against powerful abusers backed by institutions?

It would be easy to say that NYU chose to ignore Cosby’s case due to a lack of official charges against the accused until this year. But NYU knew, to some degree, and continued to — in a sense — support Cosby by allowing his degree to remain. This is evident in how the Tisch School of the Arts removed Cosby’s name from a workshop back in 2015, when the controversy around Cosby’s sexual assault allegations began making national headlines. It’s clear that the university was aware of the severity of the claims, and no meek excuse about Board of Trustees meetings excuses the 13 years since Cosby was first accused.

In light of innumerable sexual assault victims coming forward with the #MeToo movement, the public must take on the responsibility of upholding the integrity of these claims, and the wellbeing of the people most affected. No real change can come out of these allegations if institutions as powerful as NYU choose to stay on the sidelines until they are forced to speak up. The way which we treat sexual assault allegations is changing for the better — and it’s time NYU catches up to this new reality before it gets left behind. 

 

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 26 print edition. Email Melanie Pineda at [email protected] 

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