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

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 21, 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 letter 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.


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Comments (23)

  1. Scott Albergate says:

    Your demonizing or Mr. Rose only puts you in the gutter with his actions. Here’s a thought: since he is one of yours by virtue of the degree you gave him why not reach out and offer him your pastoral care and concern. That would not only be in the great Anglican tradition of pastoral care but also in the manner of the One who extended an open hand of concern and forgiveness to sinners.

  2. PJ Cabbiness says:

    Did we learn nothing from the Pharisees or McCarthyism? Rose is not a criminal. He is a flawed human being who behaved badly and is suffering the consequences. This Inquisition type zeal by Academics is troubling and short sighted.

  3. Len Freeman says:

    I can’t recall a single episode of someone being refused communion for a “notorious sin” by any cleric over the past forty or so years… and I’ve had murderers, thieves, bank robbers, and a bunch of adulterers amongst those I gave the sacraments to.
    Maybe an honorary degree is a different category… but on the other hand it’s a classic statement of the faith, that for membership in this body, “only sinners need apply.”

  4. Jackson Hill says:

    With Christ there is forgiveness.

  5. Brian MacFarland says:

    Allegations do not make one a criminal. It appears that Salem is alive and well at Sewanee.

  6. Rev Doris Westfall says:

    Holding someone accountable for their actions is neither demonizing nor condemning them. Rescinding the honorary degree does not exclude a pastoral action being taken towards Mr. Rose. As a priest I would be brought before a disciplinary board on Title IV charges if my actions mirrored those of Mr. Rose. Asking that an individual be held accountable for their actions does not smack of McCarthyism or the Inquisition as PJ Crabbiness asserts. Accountability and compassion are not mutually exclusive of one another. And I find it very telling that in not one of the comments were the multiple women who were abused, harassed, or assaulted referenced or given the same consideration as Mr. Rose.

  7. Jim Newman says:

    Rose asked for forgiveness. Should not it be the Church that is most likely to grant it? Sewanee was quite right in granting it and not rescinding the diploma. It makes one wonder what theology the good people in the Department of Theology is teaching?

  8. Rev Doris Westfall says:

    The women who were abused are the ones to grant forgiveness. And forgiveness does not mean that accountability goes out the window or that consequences are not imposed. No one has condemned his immortal soul. The theology taught by the “good people in the Department of Theology” is consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the historic understanding of sin and forgiveness taught by the church for 2000 years.

  9. Robert Warren Cromey says:

    Yes, Rose is a sinner like the rest of us. Leave him alone. Why does Sewanee have to stoop to Media’s level of lack of compassion. Leave him alone. Take a stand on control instead.

  10. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Charlie Rose has from the start been a member in good standing of the media fraternity that has caused so much damage to our country. While pretending to have a higher calling he was in reality dedicated to enriching himself as egregiously as anyone. Sewanee should never have awarded him an honorary degree in the first place and probably was motivated largely by the publicity it would engender. I might have expected better from the University of the South which surely stands guilty of bad judgment.

  11. M. Holloway says:

    I hope commenters have read the original letters linked from the Sewanee Purple and recommend the opinion piece from one of the students appearing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution http://www.myajc.com/blog/get-schooled/student-college-should-revoke-charlie-rose-honor-after-sexual-misconduct-charges/ux65g8UrS6mI20qvDJt1MP/. It does not bode well for the future of the Episcopal Church that it’s news service begins its coverage of this debacle with a headline about the theology professors- profound though their response was- instead of about the students, young women of faith, who are calling for change in their community. The kind of tone-deaf response that the Sewanee administration demonstrated and is echoed in some of these comments is an example of attitudes that result in the rejection of church by the coming generation.

  12. Anne Burton says:

    And the Lord said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” There are no blameless, only those who have not been caught. And the are often the first to condemn.

  13. The Rev Edwin Cox says:

    Sewanee awarded Charlie Rose an honorary degree in recognition of the good he had done. That is a fact. That is history. Are we now to hide our history. I would venture that in its history, Sewanee has given degrees to bigots, rogues, thieves, and — shocking as the possibility may seem to the puritans pushing for reversal — unfaithful people. Did Sewanee make an error by not engaging an investigative company to do an extensive search for every dirty detail of every year of every honoree’s life? If we are only to honor perfect people, then we may as well print a batch with the same name: “Jesus Josephson.”
    Mr Rose had an outstanding career as a journalist. He also seems to have misused his relationship of power over a number of women. If that abuse had been known, one may hope he wouldn’t have been awarded that degree.
    History. Let anyone who wishes go through all the honorary degrees and make their list of who should and who should not have been given their degree. They were still awarded.

  14. I remember being told as a child “If you truly repent, God will gladly forgive”. Then there is the 12 step program used by some organizations. You have to seek forgiveness and also try to make restitution to those you have harmed and reform your own life. I agree that Sewanee and indeed other seminaries should stop giving out “honorary degrees” to celebrities of all kinds, usually hoping that the publicity will result in donations and even the recipient will give them a big donation.

  15. Rebecca Scheer says:

    This is an unnecessary act to punish Mr. Rose. Haven’t you noticed that he has practically vanished? His name is not even mentioned anymore nor is he seen on television anywhere. The scandal virtually ruined his career and that alone would have punished him severely. Show some compassion and leave the man alone. What has happened to him is an example enough to those who may be flirting with predatory behavior at work.

  16. SB Davenport says:

    The Board dissembles in claiming, “We want to be clear that we have stood, and always will stand, against sexual harassment of women or men.” That may be the Board’s, and the University’s, official position. But the on-campus reality is that protection of sexual predators — and, worse, the placing of blame on those who have experienced sexual harassment/assault by fellow students, faculty and/or staff — has been upheld by this, and previous, administrations. Revoking Charlie Rose’s honorary degree would be only the first step in addressing this long-standing issue at Sewanee.

  17. Forgiveness is a forever process. It is not a gift anyone can lightly dispense wholesale. Maybe this withdrawal of honor awarded for particular reasons has been too hair trigger—such a bad metaphor just now.

  18. Lisa Rung says:

    “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6

    Lisa Rung Sewanee Class of 1990

  19. John Simpson says:

    Not that this comments section sounds anything but informed and reasoned, but…
    – Sewanee has not revoked the honorary degree
    – the Theology faculty letter cited above was in response to the theological points made by the Board of Regents in their letter declining to rescind the honorary degree
    – these are not “allegations.” Mr. Rose has acknowledged his actions
    – there is a sexual assault crisis in colleges around the country, and students often feel there is no recourse for victims
    – the request to do so was initiated by undergraduates (whatever “zeal” one perceives is led by the undergraduates, many of whom know first-hand how difficult it is to bring a perpetrator to justice in a university setting)
    – and if you’re keeping score at home, an honorary degree is not an instrument of reconciliation or forgiveness in this Church

  20. Dorothy Vellom says:

    “Honorary Degrees awarded by the University are in recognition of unusual achievement by individuals whose services to the Church, to arts and letters, to science or to human society have advanced the principles for which the University stands.” (Ordinances of the University of the South, Ch 19, Sect 1)

    If this is truly the case, then the University needs to clearly define the principles for which it stands, and then closely examine whether Mr. Rose’s services to arts and letters, and human society, crafted as they were within his toxic work environment, truly advance those principles.

    Dorothy Vellom, Sewanee Class of 1989

  21. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I think I agree with Dorothy Vellom though I can’t be sure she would agree with me. From his first appearance on the tube Charlie Rose was presented as commercial television’s gift to civilized discourse, an image he substantiated with his link to PBS even though he never gave up the huge income he received from commercial TV. So he had the best of both worlds so-to-speak.

    Colleges apparently benefit by competing with each other to award meaningless honorary degrees to the biggest “names.” I am cynical enough to believe that the decision makers at Sewanee figured the school would gain, perhaps financially, from the publicity it would receive from being associated with the name “Charlie Rose” even though by Sewanee’s own standards he really did not merit the honor any more than Oprah Winfrey was deserving of being similarly honored by Harvard.

    The unkindness Mr. Rose has evidently shown towards members of the opposite sex bespeaks his unworthiness as a human being and may deserve condemnation. But it is pathetic that the current discussion about Mr. Rose has focused entirely on whether or not his misbehavior should result in the revocation of his honorary degree rather than on whether or not he was worthy of the honor in the first place.

    One more thought: I do not question that every female by definition deserves respect and that men who abuse women physically should be severely sanctioned. But can there be any doubt that some of the problem of which Charlie Rose is just one example has been brought about by the aggressiveness of the feminist movement and its insistence that there are essentially no psychological differences between the sexes worthy of consideration? Is that issue not more worthy of debate than merely whether a long forgotten honorary degree should be rescinded?

  22. Dorothy Vellom says:

    I do agree in part with Tony Oberdorfer, as it certainly appears that “the principles for which the University stands” in this context are directly tied to financial benefit and increased publicity. That this be made transparent was the reason I suggested the University clearly define those principles – I perhaps should have added “for which the University actually, in practice, stands.”

    Whether any given recipient of an honorary degree from the University of the South is worthy of the honor goes directly back to defining those principles. I am hopeful that this discussion around revocation of an honorary degree will crack open the door to honest examination of the process by which those recipients have historically been selected, and allow the University to, at the very least, bring its actions in line with its published ordinances. My greater hope is that the University administration will recenter its actions, in this and every regard, on the principles for which the greater University family – faculty, staff, students, alumni, benefactors, and community – expect it to stand, principles such as honor, truth, respect, and justice.

    I find myself ill-equipped to respond to the final paragraph of the comment, simply because I have not ever subscribed to the feminist movement and therefore have no basis from which to engage in that discussion. There is a vast gulf between the belief, as stated, that “there are essentially no psychological differences between the sexes worthy of consideration” (a view I have never held and, quite frankly, have never heard voiced) and the belief that every human being is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, a view to which I do subscribe.

    Anticipating probable responses to my having made that statement: yes, “every human being” includes those who do not treat others with dignity or respect; no, I do not think that revoking an honor for which the person is patently unworthy runs counter to that belief; and yes, the revocation of an honor can and should be done in a respectful and dignified manner, lest the University fail, once again, to uphold the principles her greater family expects of her.

    Given the context in which these discussions are playing out in the University and throughout the United States, no, I do not believe that another issue, however relevant it may be, is currently more worthy of debate. In this moment, the Vice Chancellor and the Board of Regents have the opportunity to listen and to act, to demonstrate that they truly desire and are working for the best for Sewanee and the entire University family, and ultimately to open the door further for additional discussions around related, but less time-sensitive, issues.

    Dorothy Vellom, Sewanee Class of 1989

  23. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I thank Dorothy Vellom for taking the time to offer a measured rejoinder to my own comments. One may dispute my use of a particular term or two (e.g. “psychological difference”) but I think there can be no question that the trend in recent years has been to minimize male/female distinctions even to the absurd point these days of claiming that one’s gender should be treated as a matter of choice. (Indeed there are weirdos even in the Episcopal Church who are attempting to propagate this view!) As a traditionalist from Massachusetts I have always respected Sewanee for holding firm to a traditionalist perspective more mindful of history. Evidently things may have changed.

    But to illustrate the point about how in my view women these days are themselves partly responsible for the fact that people like the sophisticated Charlie Rose feel no compunction about mistreating lady acquaintances, I need point only to the exultation felt today over the U.S. women’s hockey team’s Olympic win as if adding another gold medal were all that counted. Aside from the fact that ice hockey is a very rough sport which can cause considerable body damage especially to women, is it unnatural that many reasonable males should resent the intrusion of women into yet another traditionally male sport? Charlie Rose may or may not himself have played hockey but one can understand how people with his kind of mentality may have forgotten (if they ever knew) that women deserve to be treated physically with perhaps a bit more respect than other males.

    Now I realize that the point I’m making might reduce me to being termed a male chauvinist pig who was born in the wrong century, but in an age when our traditional civilization is clearly under attack, I would respectfully ask for a slightly more sympathetic response than that. I still feel that the debate at Sewanee over the honorary degree awarded Charlie Rose should be broadened a bit.

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