Cosby Conviction Dismantles Legacy, Dismays Scholars - Higher Education
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Cosby Conviction Dismantles Legacy, Dismays Scholars

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Actor Bill Cosby, whose stellar show-biz career took off as a stand-up comedian, elevated African-Americans on television in the 1980s by using his fame and wealth to promote education and support for historically Black colleges and universities.

But now, at the age of 80, the former entertainment icon faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison after a jury in Norristown, Pa., found him guilty Thursday on all three charges of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand. Each count carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, though the terms can be served concurrently.

Dr. Trimiko Melancon

Cosby’s conviction brings closer to the end a storied career that was birthed in the tough Richard Allen Housing Projects in his beloved hometown of Philadelphia.

In the wake of increasing accusations that the man once called “America’s favorite Dad” had sexually assaulted dozens of women over a period spanning 40 years, more than 20 of the nearly 60 colleges and universities that awarded him honorary degrees over the years have rescinded them. Among those schools are Tufts University, Drexel University, Lehigh University, Carnegie Mellon University and Wesleyan University.

A spokesman for Boston College said that as a matter of policy, the college does not rescind honorary degrees and would not do so for Cosby.

In 2015, Spelman College terminated a professorship that was endowed by Cosby and his wife of 54 years, Camille.

In a statement emailed to Diverse by Ray Betzner, Temple University’s chief spokesperson said the university will now determine whether it will rescind the honorary degree that they awarded Cosby, who is an alumnus and served for many years on the board of trustees from 1982 until 2014, when he was forced to step down amid the allegations.

“Temple University respects today’s decision reached by the jury in the Bill Cosby case,” Temple’s statement said. “Today’s decision provides additional facts for the University to consider with respect to Bill Cosby’s honorary degree. Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick J. O’Connor has informed us that, given his prior role, he will recuse himself from any discussions or decisions related to this matter.”

O’Connor is a former board of trustees chairman at Temple who had worked as a lawyer for Cosby.

Cosby entered Temple on an athletic scholarship in 1961 and dropped out two years later to pursue comedy full-time. He later returned and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1971. He eventually earned a doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1976.

Constand, Cosby’s accuser in the case, was a Temple employee at the time the incident occurred in 2004 at his home near Philadelphia. She alleged that Cosby sexually assaulted her. His attorneys maintained that the sexual contact was consensual with Constand, whom Cosby was mentoring.

Last summer, a jury in the case deadlocked after six days of deliberation. The jury in this retrial reached a decision on the second day of deliberations.

Cosby remains free on $1-million bail. Declaring him to not be a flight risk, Judge Steven T. O’Neill ordered Cosby under house arrest and to wear a tracking device until sentencing. Cosby’s legal representration said he will appeal.

Some African-American scholars and academics felt, more than anything, a sense of sadness about the verdict.

Dr. Larry E. Davis

It’s tragic that someone who once was such an affable, highly regarded Black male role model is now a disgraced fallen star, said Dr. Larry E. Davis, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh and founder and director of the university’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

“There are so few Black heroes,” lamented Davis. “It’s a sad loss of a great Black icon, to see him have such an unflattering end to his career, his life.”

Davis felt that Cosby in later years took on a conservatism that put an unfair share of the burden of solving race problems on Black people, sometimes publicly.

Nevertheless, Davis said, Cosby’s role on his highly successful sitcom as a wholesome father figure and his moral and financial support that raised the profiles of HBCUs were among the good he did.

“I’m sorry for him. I’m sorry for Black people, too,” said Davis. “We hate to see one of our people who had an illustrious career fall to that level. And I’m sorry for the country, as well. I’m sure a lot of people are sorry to see him fall from grace to the extent that he has.”

The jury’s verdict didn’t surprise Dr. Trimiko Melancon, associate professor of English, African-American studies and women’s studies at Loyola University.

The trial came at the height of the current #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, noted Melancon, whose research specializes in race, gender, and sexuality.

“The verdict is one that I can neither celebrate nor dismiss without also recognizing some of the deeper issues operating,” she said.

The outcome “speaks to the nexus and complexity of race, gender, class and sexuality privilege in this nation,” she said. “All these dynamics figured into this case. The guilty verdict is absolutely a result of #MeToo and #TimesUp, as well as the efforts of Black feminists, Black activists and others who have long fought sexual assault in this nation.”

While people regardless of race “have worked effortlessly against sexual violence,” Melancon said, what does it say that Cosby – a Black figure and not the first – “becomes the mechanism of accountability?  So often, we don’t see this [accountability] happen across the board. So, what does that mean? There should be no double-standard when it comes to justice. Will others be held accountable?”

You can reach LaMont Jones at ljones@diverseeducation.com and follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones.

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