Theology professors press Sewanee to revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree over scandal

February 20, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Theology professors at Sewanee: The University of the South are joining a chorus of voices calling for the Tennessee university to revoke an honorary degree given to Charlie Rose because of sexual harassment allegations against the broadcast journalist.

The letter, dated Feb. 19, is addressed to top Sewanee administrators and the university’s Board of Regents and is signed by eight professors – a majority of the faculty members in the School of Theology. They seek to frame their response “within the larger, theologically grounded tradition of pastoral response to sin and forgiveness” and dispute some of the theological justifications the school has made in resisting calls to revoke Rose’s honorary degree.

The letter also invokes a recent message on sexual harassment issued by the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop and House of Deputies president.

“We pray that this university will have the courage to respond to this call, and that it will seek to demonstrate in symbol and in substance that it respects the dignity of every human being, and demands similar respect be shown by all whom it honors,” the professors say in their letter, posted online by the Sewanee Purple, a student-run news publication.

Sewanee’s Episcopal roots date to its founding in 1857 by clergy and lay leaders from dioceses across the south. It continues to be owned and governed by 28 Episcopal dioceses and offers a full range of degrees, in addition to training future church leaders in its seminary.

Rose was a top name in TV journalism through his “Charlie Rose” interview show on PBS and Bloomberg and his co-anchor role on CBS’ “This Morning” when harassment allegations surfaced in November. Eight women told the Washington Post that Rose made unwanted sexual advances toward them, including lewd comments, groping and walking around naked in their presence.

Rose issued an apology for his “inappropriate behavior” and admitted he had “behaved insensitively at times,” though he also disputed the accuracy of some of the allegations. He was promptly fired by PBS, Bloomberg and CBS.

Charlie Rose at Sewanee

Charlie Rose delivers the commencement address in May 2016 at Sewanee: The University of the South. Photo: Sewanee

Sewanee presented Rose with an honorary degree in spring 2016, when he delivered the university’s commencement address. “Fame is way overrated unless you do something good with it,” CBS News quoted Rose as saying in his speech to graduates.

Rose was one of a series of prominent men from the world of entertainment, media and politics to suddenly fall from grace last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct, prompting women everywhere to share their own stories of harassment and abuse in what has been called the #MeToo movement. Some universities have responded by taking back past honors bestowed on Rose, including Arizona State University, Fordham University and State University of New York-Oswego.

The Bairnwick Women’s Center at Sewanee started an online petition in December calling for Sewanee to revoke Rose’s honorary degree, the Sewanee Purple reported, and early this month, two of the university’s student trustees, Claire Brickson and Mary Margaret Murdock, spoke to the Board of Regents recommending the board take that step.

“Revoking Charlie Rose’s degree sends a clear statement to those 17 individuals who reported rapes on campus in 2016, that we support their decision to come forward,” Brickson and Murdock told the Board of Regents, according to the Sewanee Purple.

Four Episcopal bishops and three Episcopal priests sit on the 20-member Board of Regents, including Florida Bishop Samuel Howard, who serves as an ex officio board member because of his position as Sewanee chancellor. The regents responded last week in a letter to Brickson and Murdock saying they decided, after “vigorous discussion,” that Rose should keep his honorary degree.

“We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men,” the board said. “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.”

The Board of Regents also asserted “condemnation has no place here” before elaborating on its “ecclesiastical considerations” in the matter.

“Clarification comes in the question ‘Is there a hierarchy of sin?’ Quickly followed by ‘Are we all not sinners?’ Therein lies the ecumenical rub,” the board’s said. “If we condemn a person then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?”

Episcopal News Service sought comment Feb. 21 from the four bishops on the Board of Regents and was referred instead to Sewanee administrators. A spokeswoman said the university had no additional statement on the issue, though one may be issued later this week.

The regents’ reasoning drew a direct rebuttal from the School of Theology professors in their letter.

“Respectfully, we must insist that there is a hierarchy of sin, long recognized in the tradition,” the professors say. “In the gospels, Jesus himself makes such distinctions, and he forcefully censures those who place a ‘stumbling block’ before others – that is, create scandal that impedes faith.”

The professors also cite the disciplinary rubric in the Book of Common Prayer that says clergy should prevent from taking communion those who are “living a notoriously evil life” and those “who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal.”

“Public scandal is, in the tradition, regarded as a reason to send a message,” the professors say. “One struggles to think of a case of public scandal more obvious than the behavior of Mr. Rose.”

The professors also acknowledge the revoking Rose’s honorary degree is a mere symbolic act, though no more symbolic than granting him the degree in the first place.

And they point for context to the Jan. 22 letter to the Episcopal Church from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies. Curry and Jennings called on Episcopalians to take the coming of Ash Wednesday and Lent as a time to meditate “on the ways in which we in the church have failed to stand with women and other victims of abuse and harassment and to consider, as part of our Lenten disciplines, how we can redouble our work to be communities of safety that stand against the spiritual and physical violence of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.