In a guest column today, a campus leader addresses the failure of her university to rescind a 2016 honorary degree to veteran journalist Charlie Rose, despite disturbing revelations about his sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Claire Brickson, a senior at Sewanee: The University of the South, criticizes the Tennessee liberal art college’s Board of Regents for its rationale: “We do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual.”
In her essay, Brickson asks the exact right questions about that justification: But is it Sewanee’s place to honor such an individual?
And what does a refusal to revoke the honor say to Sewanee students, who are close in age to the young women Rose is alleged to have harassed?
To me, it says that while other colleges and institutions are making it clear in actions and policies that sexual harassment is not a minor infraction and will not be overlooked or downplayed, Sewanee’s leaders are saying #NotUs.
The #MeToo movement has led many women including some in media to come forward about their experiences, leading to the firing of such prominent TV personalities as Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly.
In November, CBS News fired Rose, a 76-year-old North Carolina native, within 24 hours of women who worked with him at PBS revealing a history of sexual misconduct, including groping and appearing naked in front of them.
As the AJC reported at the time:
Several women have accused Rose of touching them on the breasts, buttocks or thigh, emerging naked from a shower when they were working at his residence and, in one case, calling a 21-year-old staffer to tell his fantasies of seeing her swim in the nude. A former associate producer for Rose's PBS show, Reah Bravo, told the Washington Post: "He was a sexual predator, and I was his victim."
Here is an excellent story in the Sewanee student newspaper on how the Rose question has roiled the campus. Here are two excellent letters on the issue from theology faculty and students at Sewanee.
With that background, here is Brickson’s column. I also included the letter sent to her and another student by the Sewanee board explaining its decision.
Brickson is a senior English major and a women and gender Studies minor from Birmingham, Al. After graduation, she will be working for a local newspaper to further study writing as a tool for social change
By Claire Brickson
The Washington Post reported that Charlie Rose told a woman he was groping: “I hope you don’t mind, I’m from the South, we’re touchers.” It was as “a son of the South” and “architect of American culture” that Charlie Rose was awarded an honorary degree by the University of the South, colloquially known as Sewanee. Now, we are asking our University to condemn Rose’s exploitation of Southern culture for personal and sexual gain.
As one of two student trustees, I was elected to bring student concerns before the Board of Regents, Sewanee’s highest governing body. After requesting that we follow the example of Fordham and State University of New York Oswego in rescinding the award, we received a letter in response, one that declines the opportunity to denounce abuse or affirm survivors of harassment and assault. The Board thanked us for beginning “a vigorous discussion...that proved [the Board] members’ passion for Sewanee and led it to reflect on our unique values, which are not found amongst many colleges.”
Those “unique values,” the letter claims, stem from the University’s relationship with the Episcopal Church, the institution to which it purports to look for theological guidance:
“We do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual. In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path. We impose a penalty where appropriate, but we also offer forgiveness. That said, it would be easy to condemn Mr. Rose and rescind the honorary degree. It is harder not to do so. The opportunity to forgive should always be taken. Condemnation has no place here.
Clarification comes in the question ‘Is there a hierarchy of sin?’ Quickly followed by ‘Are we all not sinners?’ Therein lies the ecumenical rub. If we condemn a person then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?”
The language here is troubling, the implications doubly so. In refusing to name Rose’s crime for what it is, the board contributes to a culture that protects those who abuse positions of power.
Some of the women who accused Rose of misconduct were interns at the time, not much older than current Sewanee students. By allowing Rose’s honorary degree to remain in place, the leaders of this university confer upon its graduates the assumption that sexual harassment in the workplace is both inevitable and trivial, a damaging message for women and men alike.
As our Vice Chancellor has said, the revocation of Charlie Rose’s honorary degree is a “feather” atop a “thousand ton weight.” We do not seek to simply discredit Rose or end his career -- Mr. Rose has more than accomplished that himself. We disagree with our Vice Chancellor that "making a gesture, as a practical matter, probably does little to change a culture or change behavior.”
As an Episcopal university, we expect certain standards of behavior from our community, expectations outlined in the Baptismal Covenant and our Honor Code. In failing to “respect the dignity of every human being,” Rose violated those standards, and deserves appropriate repercussions.
If we claim the symbolic act of bestowing the award carried weight, so does the revocation of it.
As part of its response, the administration cites steps it has taken toward curbing sexual assault: committees, task forces, coordinators, increased campus lighting. These measures -- all positive, but all reactive -- fail to address sexual assault and harassment for what they are: a systematic exploitation of power, manifested as violence.
Although social and cultural stigma surrounding discussions of sexual assault has decreased in recent years, it becomes a problem when responsibility is placed on survivors to make their stories publicly known. But if the administration and police are perceived as being ineffective, what choice do we have? According to RAINN, 994 in every 1000 rapists walk free.
The Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” includes the line: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” MLK wrote this response to eight Alabama clergymen who called for moderation so as not to “incite hatred and violence” between black protesters and the white community.
One of those clergymen was Bishop Carpenter, chancellor of Sewanee at the time. Though the issue has evolved, the sentiment remains the same: challenges to the use of Christian doctrine in condoning immoral behavior are deemed, and dealt with, as a threat.
As students of the University of the South, we seek to challenge the narrative that the South remains a step behind the rest of the country. In refusing to accept paternalism and sloppy theology, students are making our position clear: we can and will do better than those before us in fighting to end sexual violence.
Here is the letter from the Sewanee Board of Regents explaining its decision:
Dear Claire and Mary Margaret,
We are indebted to you both for your recent presentation to the Board of Regents regarding the honorary degree of Charlie Rose and aspects of Sewanee culture that bear examination. Your talk sparked a vigorous discussion by the Board that proved its members’ passion for Sewanee and led it to reflect on our unique values, which are not found amongst many colleges. For us, the central question is how do we embrace academic and ecclesiastical considerations and meld the two? What follows attempts to capture the essential elements of what was a serious, respectful, and quite lengthy discussion.
Respectfully, we submit that we should look to our own Honor Code for a tradition that combines both the academic and the ecclesiastical. In its essence, we do not condone perverse behavior. We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men. At the same time, we do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual. In fact, we think there is grave danger were we to go down that path. We impose a penalty where appropriate, but we also offer forgiveness. That said, it would be easy to condemn Mr. Rose and rescind the honorary degree. It is harder not to do so. The opportunity to forgive should always be taken. Condemnation has no place here.
Clarification comes in the question “Is there a hierarchy of sin?” Quickly followed by “Are we all not sinners?” Therein lies the ecumenical rub. If we condemn a person then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?
Moving forward, the most important part of your presentation gave us opportunity to revisit our own Sewanee culture which should be that “we respect the dignity of every human being.” From your talk we are clearly not there completely. Yet we are working hard, have been working hard for a very long time, and continue to seek ways of ensuring that our own campus culture and our own workplaces are models of right behavior. For example, we have added, this year, a Deputy Title IX Coordinator among whose duties will be to provide training across the campus at all levels.
For the last three years new students have received Bringing in the Bystander training during Orientation. There is currently a Task Force on Sexual Climate, co-chaired by Dean Gentry and Title IX Coordinator Professor Kelly Malone and announced last April, which is revisiting and updating the 2012 Rethink report. The Regents will receive an interim report from this Task Force in June. Its recommendations will be presented to the Vice-Chancellor in the fall. Many of our administrative colleagues are actively involved through the Associated Colleges of the South in addressing issues of sexual misconduct. These are all substantive actions that will have real consequences for the University community. Finally, going forward, the University will ask of all honorary degree nominees the same questions asked of Bishop candidates.
What (else) might students do? By way of example, the Thistle Farms initiative to aid battered women is under way in the current semester. The Board of Regents will match, dollar for dollar, the money raised by students in this effort.
We thank you again and hope that despite our human condition we will aspire always to treat our brothers and sisters with respect.
Respectfully and on behalf of the Board of Regents,
Joseph DeLozier, Chairman
The Rt. Rev. John Howard, Chancellor
Margaret McLarty, Secretary
John M. McCardell, Jr., Vice-Chancellor
About the Author
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com