Trustees give themselves ability to revoke honorary degrees

LARAMIE — At its January meeting, the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees amended its regulations to add a process for revoking honorary degrees.

Under the new regulation, the trustees “may revoke an honorary degree if, in its judgement, and taking into account the President of the University’s recommendation, the recipient of the degree has engaged in conduct that: 1) is inconsistent with the stated mission and/or values of the University of Wyoming; 2) misrepresents or undermines the accomplishments that were cited as the basis for awarding the honorary degree; or 3) is injurious to the reputation of the University of Wyoming.”

The change to create a degree revocation process was proposed by Provost Kate Miller.

“I probably don’t need to remind you all why that’s coming up lately,” UW General Counsel Tara Evans said when introducing the regulatory change at the trustees’ meeting.

The regulation change follows comes as universities across the U.S. have revoked the honorary degrees of disgraced public figures, most notably comedian Bill Cosby.

Cosby’s received about 60 honorary degrees during his lifetime, but dozens of those degrees have since been revoked after he was accused, and later convicted, of sexually assaulting multiple women.

Television personalities Charlie Rose and Bill O’Reilly have also had honorary degrees revoked after being fired over sexual harassment allegations.

Faculty Senate had recommended changes to the new honorary degree revocation process. Faculty Senate wanted to provide honorary degree recipients with the right to appeal the revocation of their degrees.

Ultimately, administrators rejected that proposal.

At the same meeting, the trustees voted to award a few new honorary degrees without publicly naming the recipients. Trustee Michelle Sullivan said the trustees had discussed each proposed degree in executive session. Sullivan the public announcement of the degree recipients will be “contingent upon the awardees accepting them.”

The Wyoming Public Meetings Law provides very specific reasons that executive sessions can be used, and discussions about honorary degrees are not included in that list.

However, the Laramie Boomerang was provided with a formal statement from Evans in 2019 that argued honorary degrees can be considered in executive session because discussion of the awards involves information that is “confidential by law.”

In choosing to award honorary degrees the board could review records containing “sociological data on individual persons” and “interagency or intraagency memoranda or letters which would not be available by law to a private party in litigation with the agency,” Evans said.

At their January meeting, trustees also voted to amend their regulation regarding student disciplinary hearings.

Under the regulation change, employees who witness violations of the Student Code of Conduct “may be obligated to participate in investigations, conduct meetings, and/or hearings at the discretion of the Dean of Students or designee.”

“If you’re a witness or are involved, we need your cooperation,” Evans said.

Beginning in September 2016, Evans and administrators have been working to review the university’s entire regulatory structure.

Since then, trustees have approved numerous substantive changes to the university’s regulations while also reorganizing them into a new format.

“We’re at the point in the revision of these regulations where we’re down to the hard stuff and they’re not coming as quickly or easily as they were and as we work our way to the bottom of the pile, we’re probably going to find a few that this board is just going to have to make a decision on,” Trustee Kermit Brown said. “Our work has slowed, but we persevere.”