Bill O’Reilly’s highly publicized fall from grace besmirched his formerly distinguished reputation and brought a particularly heated discussion to his alma mater, Marist College.
Though his overtly conservative views have characteristically estranged certain viewers, the sexual misconduct allegations made against O’Reilly have escalated the controversy surrounding the journalist from typical partisan disagreement to widespread reproach.
In response to the claims, Marist College revoked O’Reilly’s honorary degree on Feb. 4, and fellow collegiate institutions would do well to follow its commendable example.
Honorary degrees from universities are meant to commend public figures — politicians, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, journalists and more — whose positive impact deserves recognition.
These merit-based accolades are meant to honor the outstanding legacies of remarkable influencers and reflect the principles the college values. If Marist College upheld O’Reilly’s honorary degree, it would propagate a detrimental tolerance of sexual assault and harassment plaguing this nation and this world.
O’Reilly’s purported sins span over 15 years and call into question the entirety of his reign at Fox News. In 2002, the first verbal abuse accusation came forth from junior producer Rachel Witlieb Bernstein, who departed from Fox with a “small settlement,” according to the LA Times.
The floodgates truly burst open when “The O’Reilly Factor” associate producer Andrea Mackris filed a lawsuit asserting that O’Reilly shared “inappropriate stories about his sex life” and propositioned her.
After O’Reilly filed a suit of his own, the two came to a settlement that gave Mackris $9 million — a measly sum compared to the $60 million she requested — and “agreed to release a statement that ‘no wrongdoing occurred whatsoever’.”
But O’Reilly had by no means seen the last of his days in court. Fox News found itself in the midst of a reckoning when in 2016 the network’s CEO Roger Ailes became the high-profile culprit in sexual harassment charges from former host Gretchen Carlson.
Ailes denied these charges, and O’Reilly announced that he stood by Ailes “100 percent” in his appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
“…95 percent of people that have worked for Roger Ailes would say exactly the same thing I just told you. In this country, every famous, powerful, or wealthy person is a target. You’re a target — I’m a target. Any time somebody can come out and sue us, attacks us, go to the press, or anything like that,” O’Reilly said.
Almost like a prophecy, O’Reilly’s statement quite accurately portended his own fate. With alarming frequency, claims of O’Reilly’s wrongdoings flooded headlines in 2017 with one bombshell article after another slamming the acclaimed journalist.
The New York Times published an article on April 1, 2017 exposing payouts to five women from Fox and O’Reilly totaling approximately $13 million; in exchange, the women agreed not to “pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him.”
These chilling accounts condemn O’Reilly for a “wide range of behavior” including “verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating.” On April 19, Fox News — O’Reilly’s home since 2001 — daringly dropped one of its biggest names and major money-makers.
Perhaps the move would have been more admirable had Fox not awarded O’Reilly what Newsweek called a “golden parachute” of $25 million when he departed. Even in light of his reprehensible actions, Fox still lent O’Reilly an undeserving helping hand.
Marist College faculty members coalesced behind a petition with 120 signatures which implored the Board of Trustees to rescind the honorary degree awarded to O’Reilly in 2001, according to Marist’s student newspaper, The Circle (for which O’Reilly was once a columnist).
The petition declared that O’Reilly’s actions directly contradicted the college’s mission statement, which states, “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.”
For so many college students, the idea that their university’s most famous alumnus once graced the same halls they walk is a source of great inspiration. But as a student at Marist College, thoughts of O’Reilly wandering the same paths I walk elicit a profoundly eerie feeling. O’Reilly was an honors student, just like me.
He played football in the same stadium where I sit and cheer on my school. But off the field and out of the classroom, I shudder to think about how this man conducted himself on my beloved campus.
Such immorality must have been born somewhere — for all we know, it could have been in the very same residence halls where my friends and I live. To say this thought is unsettling would be a colossal understatement.
I have overwhelming pride in my college’s courageous decision to publicly punish O’Reilly, despite his prominence and history of involvement at Marist. No one who commits such heinous deeds deserves praise for their legacy, and I eagerly anticipate a growing crusade of colleges revoking honorary degrees from dishonorable recipients.
Colleges have already made significant strides — the University of Pennsylvania announced on Feb. 1 it would revoke Steve Wynn’s and Bill Cosby’s honorary degrees on account of sexual misconduct allegations. But others still sit on the cusp, facing significant barriers to making the just move.
Lehigh University awarded Donald Trump an honorary degree in 1988. At least 16 women have come forward with sexual allegations aimed at the current Commander in Chief. Their testimonies claim that his actions have included forcibly and inappropriately kissing, grabbing, touching, commenting, pushing and propositioning these women, according to The Nation.
This year, a significant majority of the school’s faculty voted “yes” on a motion beseeching the trustees to revoke his honorary diploma. The trustees failed to take action last year when “two similar petitions circulated,” despite the clamoring support of Lehigh faculty and students.
But with an almost unanimous vote from the student senate and strengthened faculty support, the petition will be brought before the board.
The petition states: “By staying silent we are bystanders; we normalize hate speech, condone discrimination and bullying; we enable people in positions of power to corrode the foundations of civil society; and we abdicate our commitment and responsibility to uphold and sustain our core values. Perhaps most important, what message do we send to students and staff and faculty about racist and sexist and disrespectful speech?”
Honorary degrees send very distinct and powerful messages, especially to students. They extoll leaders and influencers as paragons of virtue and personal achievement and provide an ideal for the masses to aspire to.
With that level of influence comes an ability to dramatically impact the lives of people in a positive or negative manner. Colleges need to closely and critically examine the recipients of these esteemed awards and ensure that their actions continue to reflect the merits the college champions.
I heartily bid Bill adieu, and eagerly await the day when one of my peers will become the alumnus Marist College is known for, relegating O’Reilly to the only position he deserves — as a relic of the past.