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Okay, so your honorary degree recipients and your coaches are assholes.

It happens. When La Kid graduated from George Washington University, now-disgraced honorary degree awardee Brian Williams gave an address in which he lectured UD on personal ethics.

UD‘s kinda hurt because Williams lied to her in his speech: He said it doesn’t pay to cheat, but it does pay to cheat, and he knows it cuz he’s back at his old job after suffering only un p’tit peu for being a cheat.

University coaches are of course – if they’re any good at all – cheaters. Americans know this and love them for it. Coaches do what they have to do to get ahead, just like Brian Williams.

It almost always does pay to cheat in college sports. Wins matter more than integrity. This isn’t exactly a revelation. As Jerry Tarkanian used to say, “Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.” …Cheating pays. We’ve learned this from roided-up baseball players who walked away with tens of millions of dollars, and from white-collar criminals whose sentences paled in comparison to those of small-time crack dealers.

You can blame it on a toothless NCAA, or on a college sports system that values the almighty dollar over platitudes of integrity, or on an American culture that values winning over all else.

I’ll call it something else: The fact that schools cheat – and that they get away with it – is a natural result of the odd marriage in America between big-money athletics and academics.

The reference up there to white collar criminals reminds me of one of my all-time favorite commencement speeches, from Allen Greenspan to the young eager hedgies of Wharton. It’s a fascinating address rhetorically. Greenspan knows he’s talking to many of the most-honed, highest-level cheaters America has to offer the world, people who can barely stay seated in their chair before peeling off and starting a Ponzi scheme; and indeed he knows that the background of his talk is the most recent immense number of immense American corporate scandals… So what’s he going to say? Isn’t it all rather… futile….?

I do not deny that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and manipulating associates, both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world, and far more satisfying, when it comes without exploiting others. The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake.

All the herbal viagra in the world won’t make this less limp.

Just as it’s especially amusing to watch the winningest coaches shovel the moral shit in their books and speeches, it’s a special treat to watch income inequality’s biggest boosters dish out the do-goodery.

The only trouble mondo cheato ever runs into is when pesky university students decide to get all judgmental about some of the important inspirational people on their campus. It bothers Yalies that Bill Cosby has an honorary degree that their school refuses to revoke. Why does it refuse to revoke Cosby’s degree? Yale says two things in response to this question:

1. It’s never revoked a degree before. (And we all know that timid backwater places like Yale can never do anything new.)

2. It doesn’t want to talk about it. Shut up.

UD rather admires Yale’s unwillingness even to try to argue the point. (Northwestern, where UD was an undergrad, is also opting for silence.) Tons of universities have revoked Cosby’s honorary degrees, and they’ve stated their reasons, but Yale’s like eh I don’t know didn’t I tell you to shut up? It’s like Yale acknowledges what UD has been saying which is like Hello? Everybody’s an asshole and the biggest assholes get honorary degrees. Nuff said.

One university leader has, however, been willing to go there. One leader has ignored the wisdom of the keep-mum crowd and gone there. Let us consider Stephen Trachtenberg’s opinion piece in the campus newspaper. Scathing Online Schoolmarm will interrupt his sentences with her commentary.


‘I was the GW president back in the day when we gave Bill Cosby an honorary degree. At the time, he was arguably the most popular Commencement speaker of my tenure. His remarks at graduation were received with an ovation. All attending cheered him. He was celebrated for his contributions to American culture and for his comic genius. [Spectacular dude. Was his dissertation majorly bogus? Should this matter to a university like yours as it honors him? Nah.]

It would appear, on the basis of information only now revealed, that he had, in addition to his artistic gifts, a dark and troubling and tragic hidden side. [Tragic. Da guy’s a regular Hamlet already!] Had we known of that we would not have awarded him plaudits. But we did not.

All today seem well-informed of Mr. Cosby’s seemingly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. His life and reputation lie in tatters. One can only speculate on the mental health issues that may underlie the behavior that numerous women have reported regarding Mr. Cosby. [There, there. It’s all about his tragic mental issues. Let’s not get all moral about this… But UD can’t help wondering: Why didn’t Mr Cosby, during the century or so during which he drugged and assaulted women, consult someone about his troubling behavior? I guess had he known that he had psychological problems he would not have attacked all those women. But he did not.]

People of accomplishment can, as we know, also have criminal or evil characteristics. I think of Ezra Pound, a man of towering poetic, artistic and critical gifts, and a fascist war criminal who lived out his life in a prison hospital. [Yes. Pound was punished for what he did. And again unlike Cosby, Pound was indeed clinically insane. That’s why he was in a prison hospital. His Bollingen Prize was so controversial that Congress ended – revoked, if you like – the involvement of the Library of Congress in that award program.]

What good would it do to void Mr. Cosby’s diploma? Who actually celebrates it today? He is revealed and reviled. I am not keen on trying to rewrite history. We must own our past and learn from it. There is no Platonic device for awarding honors. We do our best to celebrate the good. We work with the best information available. But being human, we have erred in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. [Enough platitudes for you? Mr Trachtenberg needs to go back and think about the many forms of public rejection, retraction, and revocation which have been a feature of the moral life of this country – and this country’s traditions – from the beginning. It does a lot of moral good – by way of clarification of one’s principles, and official removal from the community of people who seriously offend it – to void awards whose conferral turns out to have been a sick joke.]

We need to redouble our efforts to avoid such failures of judgement in the years to come but must in humility appreciate our limitations and permit experience to inform our thinking. There is a rough charm to the proposal that we should recall our degree from Mr. Cosby, but it is a blunt instrument that does not do real justice to the dreadful challenge it seeks to address. It does not actually get to right. It provides no real comfort to the abused. [How do you know? Have you heard what the abused have said? The obscenity of their attacker having been protected and even celebrated by the culture has featured prominently in their suffering. One of the reasons it took so long for law enforcement to catch up with Cosby was his many-laureled cultural identity, an identity to which GW contributed.]

Mr. Cosby knows that we no longer esteem him. Everybody knows. He is down. He is out. The degree is as null and void as it can be. It is self-executing. However much he may deserve it, I am disinclined to kick him again to underscore our own virtue. It’s too easy.’ [Oh yes, it’s just our virtue-narcissism at play. How contemptible of us.]

Margaret Soltan, October 15, 2015 12:44PM
Posted in: the university

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7 Responses to “Okay, so your honorary degree recipients and your coaches are assholes.”

  1. Jack/OH Says:

    ” . . . [R]oided up baseball players . . . .” Sam Fussell, son of the English prof, wrote a book called “Muscle”. Performance-enhancing drugs, unique sub-culture, etc. I saw the book referred to in an article about steroids and Hollywood. I’m no expert, but it looks like PEDs may have a whole lot of discombobulating effects on users, public perception of good health and sportsmanship, etc.

  2. Alan Allport Says:

    I don’t know. I’d quite like the idea of disgraced honorees being hauled back to go through a formal degradation ceremony, like Dreyfus on the way to Devil’s Island – tassels torn off mortarboards, speeches ceremonially trampled into the dust by the faculty, etc. But otherwise, it seems too much like a damage control exercise on the part of the universities themselves. Maybe they should be forced to bear the embarrassment of association permanently. Maybe then they wouldn’t hand out the damned things so casually.

  3. Bruce Foster Says:

    white color criminals – a great typo and double entendre if ever there was one. Most white collar criminals are white!

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Bruce Foster: Right you are. I’ve corrected it.

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    […] arguing that GW should not revoke the honorary degree it gave Cosby a few years ago, Trachtenberg […]

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    […] UD‘s university now struggles with whether it made the right decision in spending tuition money to give this guy a […]

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