Administration’s Silence on Cosby Suggests Apathy

Editorial Board

Bill Cosby still holds an honorary degree of humanities from Oberlin College, bestowed on him and his wife Camille at the grand opening of the Kohl Jazz Building in April 2010. Since 2000, Cosby has been accused of raping, assaulting or drugging a total of 57 women. In light of the allegations which surfaced this past year, some colleges — Fordham University and Brown University, to name a few — have rescinded Cosby’s honorary degrees. A recent Vulture article questioned why the remaining approximately 40 colleges — of which Oberlin is one — have not revoked his honorary degrees. An Oberlin spokesperson is quoted in the article as saying: “The matter is under consideration.”

Revoking Cosby’s degree would seem like a simple way for Oberlin to distance itself from appearing to support an accused rapist, much like corporations dropping celebrity spokespeople during a scandal. Michael Phelps’ deal with Kellogg was quickly severed after the Olympic star was photographed inhaling from a bong, and Tiger Woods lost countless sponsorships when his marital infidelities were exposed. Oberlin’s situation differs in that the administration has never before revoked a degree, and this decision may very well lay down precedent for the rest of the institution’s history.

Regardless of the methodology behind the decision, or why the matter has been “under consideration” for so long, Oberlin needs to adopt a stronger etiquette of communication. When virtually no information is released from official College sources, it is impossible for members of Oberlin’s community to make any sort of informed decision, and closed doors are seen as increasingly nefarious. As a self-marketed progressive institution, transparency should take priority over leaving students in the dark.

The administration’s silence on Cosby is not an isolated incident. Prior administrations were known for swift and certain responses to communal outrage — a common example being the administration’s response after the Kent State shootings — but Oberlin has begun to develop a close-mouthed reputation. Financial aid changes, divestment proposals, student protests against police brutality and other demands from student groups go largely unanswered by the administration, and the few answers that are given are often due to extensive student outrage. This silence creates, whether intentionally or not, an air of indifference from the administration with regard to issues of concern to the larger student body.

As an educational institution, Oberlin does not have the responsibility to publicly respond to every national controversy or celebrity scandal; the Office of Communications would be swamped if it did. The administration does not even have the responsibility to revoke Cosby’s degree if it chooses not to do so. But whatever the reasons behind Oberlin’s indecision, it is in the College’s best interest to give more information, not less, when its involvement in such a public affair is questioned. A lack of any statement — or worse, a vanilla statement — makes the institution appear apathetic in situations where apathy is a disadvantageous position to take. When matters concern city or student communities directly, responding promptly and in adequate detail becomes even more important.

In cases of the latter, students don’t have to like the answer they’re given. In fact, a reliable segment of the student body often doesn’t, as with Dean of Students Eric Estes’ Aug. 25 email explaining the need for security cameras on campus or President Marvin Krislov’s eventual refusal to grant the requested academic leniency in the wake of the Ferguson ruling in December of last year. No matter one’s opinion on the controversies themselves, the fact that a response followed outward concern showed that the College was listening.

The College has a responsibility to communicate with its students, especially in cases like Cosby’s when Oberlin is asked for a response on an issue with which it has at least a minor connection. It’s in cases like Cosby’s, when Oberlin has already begun to cultivate a legacy of ill-suited silence, that responses like “The matter is under consideration” just don’t cut it.