The University of the South, better known as Sewanee, last week declined to revoke the honorary degree it gave in 2016 to Charlie Rose. The veteran TV journalist was fired the following year by three news organizations after allegations of years of sexual harassment of female subordinates.

Sewanee is the only university in the United States that is owned and governed by dioceses of the Episcopal Church, and its School of Theology is one of nine accredited Episcopal seminaries in the country.

“We do not believe it is our place to condemn the individual,” members of the the university’s Board of Regents wrote. “If we condemn a person, then who among us sinners should not also be condemned?”

The board said “it would be easy to condemn Mr. Rose and rescind the honorary degree. It is harder not to do so. The opportunity to forgive should always be taken.”

The board promised that future honorary degree nominees would be questioned about their fitness for the honor, using “the same questions asked of bishop candidates” in the Episcopal Church.

Claire Brickson, one of the students who led the petition drive to rescind the honorary degree, accused the board of hypocrisy, and  rejected its “invocation of Christian values to justify inaction,” reported Fleming Smith, editor in chief of The Sewanee Purple.

Eight faculty members of the School of Theology wrote that some sins are worse than others, and “forgiveness does not cancel the serious consequences of sin, nor does it require restoring an individual to the same places of honor that he had held before.”

Duke University, from which Rose earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree, has also declined to revoke an honorary degree bestowed in 2016. The university made the announcement in December, while also announcing that the university’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy rescinded a journalism award that it had presented to Rose in 2000.

When CBS, PBS, and Bloomberg terminated their contracts with him in November 2017, Rose admitted to “inappropriate behavior,” but said he did not think all of the allegations were accurate.

At Sewanee’s commencement ceremony in May 2016, Rose’s speech to the graduating seniors included the customary blend of personal anecdotes and advice.  One passage in his remarks would later take on new meaning.

“Think about what you would like to be remembered for at the end of your life,” Rose said. “It is not honor. It is not prestige. It is character. It’s integrity. It’s doing the right thing.”

Kirk Petersen

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