Faculty Seeks to Cut Ties with Bill O’Reilly
By Tara Guaimano
William J. O’Reilly completed his undergraduate career as a history major at Marist College in the graduating class of 1971. He worked as a writer for The Circle, with his own popular column titled “Attitudes: Outrageous,” and played as the kicker on the college’s first ever championship football team. Since then, he made frequent visits back to campus to attend football games and interact with the current players, and in 2001, Marist awarded him with an honorary degree.
As of October 2017, the Marist faculty requested that the Board of Trustees rescind Bill O’Reilly’s honorary degree awarded at the 2001 Commencement ceremony, and have readily suggested so with a faculty petition.
The petition was finalized with a total of 120 signatures and delivered to the office of President Yellen by Political Science Chair, Dr. JoAnne Myers. She said that out of Marist’s 175 tenured faculty members, over half of them offered their signatures and support.
“A group of us started to talk about it and we started to backchannel about it,” JoAnne Myers said.
The petition states that O’Reilly’s actions are unaligned with the college’s mission and values. Marist’s mission statement claims, “Marist is dedicated to helping students develop the intellect, character, and skills required for enlightened, ethical, and productive lives in the global community of the 21st century."
Bill O’Reilly completed his undergraduate education at Marist, graduating with the class of 1971. In 2015, he donated $1 million toward an existing scholarship fund for students with financial need. The Peter P. O’Keefe, PhD. Endowed Scholarship provides full financial support to one student annually, which was fully enacted by 2020.
The college awarded O’Reilly with the honorary degree in 2001. He permanently left the Fox News Channel and “The O’Reilly Factor” in April 2017 owing to various sexual harassment accusations against him earlier in the year.
An investigation by the New York Times reported that O’Reilly had paid out a total of $32 million, between a total of five women, in settlements to his alleged engaging in sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior. His net worth had reached about $85 million in only the year previous.
After attending Marist, he went on to earn a Master's in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University and a second Master’s in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
The office of President Yellen has declined to comment on the currently presented information regarding the petition’s future owing to early stages of discussion and lack of finalized plans of action.
“[President Yellen] comes from a social justice background,” JoAnne Myers said. “He hit the ground here and has had a lot of issues that he has had to deal with and he has done a great job.”
The college released an official statement on the subject of honorary degrees, stating that the awarding of honorary degrees has “traditionally been a routine matter,” leaving no current specific policy in place on the topic.
A portion of the release states, “The Board of Trustees has typically awarded honorary degrees to our featured commencement speakers. The Board has come to believe, however, that it is appropriate to have a policy addressing both the awarding and, potentially, the revoking of honorary degrees.”
The board has recently begun the process of formulating policy on these matters. The release continues, “Until these policies are finalized, we will not comment on any specific honorary degree recipient.”
Marist has recognized O’Reilly as “one of the College’s most accomplished alumni” in various statements.
The petition materialized in Fontaine Hall, home to the Marist School of Liberal Arts. “There was a group of us from across the campus that talked about it,” JoAnne Myers said. “We tend to be a little more of the activists here.”
“We felt that the time was right here at Marist and that the time was right out in the real world,” JoAnne Myers said. “We need to make a statement if we keep on talking about Title IX and equal treatment.”
She received signatures from many sectors of campus, citing support from the School of Management, the School of Communication and the Arts, and the School of Science in particular.
Dr. Michael O'Sullivan stood up and made an impromptu plea at an official full faculty plenary during the Fall 2017 semester, encouraging colleagues from across campus to sign. “It was highly unusual as far as my experiences—over ten years—in our highly-formalized faculty plenaries. I can't speak for all of my colleagues, but I—for one—was very impressed Dr. JoAnne Myers and Dr. O'Sullivan that day, for their persistence,” said Dr. Steven Garabedian, history professor.
The petition states, “We believe that O’Reilly’s actions do not reflect the values of Marist College's mission statement, which emphasizes ‘character’ and our goal to assist in developing ‘enlightened, ethical human beings.’” It goes on to argue that O’Reilly’s accusations and behavior “show a pervasive attitude and pattern of harassment and legal culpability.”
According to JoAnne Myers, many faculty members have said that they had to think further about signing owing to concerns regarding the wording—the petition specifically stating that O’Reilly completely “admitted” to his accusations.
“I see it as a simple symbolic gesture registering my disapproval of the multiple abuses of which Bill O'Reilly has been accused,” Garabedian said. “As a principled act, the college should disassociate from him.” Garabedian responded to his colleagues on MARFAC—the all-Marist Faculty email thread—who were concerned that signing the petition overstepped principles of “innocent until proven guilty,” presenting a similar point. “I answered that I wasn't signing a petition to send him to jail, just signing my name to a symbolic gesture meant to renounce our association with the man.”
Dr. Justin Myers, sociology professor, claims his granted signature to be based on not only potential violation of the Marist mission, but also on his “professional behaviors” being shaped by the ASA Code of Ethics. “I was professionally obligated to sign the petition because Mr. O’Reilly has failed to live up to these values,” he said.
“His failure to realize the mission and values of Marist and respect the human rights of all people, particularly women, is not a one-time particularly women, is not a one-time incident that he then acknowledged was unacceptable and unjust and sought to make amends in his daily interactions with women,” Justin Myers said.
JoAnne Myers mentioned talk of giving O’Reilly the funds that he donated to Marist to him in addition to the potential retraction of his honorary degree—suggesting that former history professor, Peter O’Keefe, would have to be consulted and consented for any level of further action. Such action was not mentioned in the final copy of the petition that has been submitted to discussion by the Board of Trustees. The donation and scholarship were also not connected to the awarding of the honorary degree in 2001.
“My tact was, if we gave him back that money—who would be harming and who would we be helping?” JoAnne Myers said. “We would be hurting our students, and our students come first.”
Many colleges and universities oftentimes award their commencement speakers with honorary degrees, leaving dozens awarded to each campus nationwide.
In September 2015, comedian and actor, Bill Cosby’s honorary degrees from both Fordham and Marquette universities were rescinded in reaction of the sexual assault allegations filed against him earlier in the year. Both colleges cited the action as “contrary to their values,” noting the case as their precedent regarding the topic of honorary degree reconsideration, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. Cosby has received over 50 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country, and about 20 percent of those institutions had rescinded his honorary degree by October 2015.
However, many refused to do so owing to the honorary degrees being awarded based on purely what the institution knows about the honoree at the time being. In a statement, George Washington University said that it had “never been the university’s practice” to rescind an honorary degree.
The Marist faculty petition began circulation in October 2017 and was recently sent to President Yellen to be included in the February board meeting packet for initial discussion. Such action will be discussed by the Board of Trustees and closely reviewed within the semester’s series of meetings.
“It is my professional obligation to contest social inequities, including sexual harassment and sexualized violence,” Justin Myers said. “This professional obligation entails speaking out against and contesting individuals and institutions that engage in behaviors that deny others of their rights to be free from discrimination and harassment.”
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