Temple's silence over its ties with Cosby raises questions on campus

By Natalie Pompilio
Actor Bill Cosby speaks at the National Action Network's 20th annual Keepers of the Dream Awards gala in New York April 6, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

By Natalie Pompilio

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - In the years since Bill Cosby graduated from Temple University, the images of the school and the veteran comedian have become closely intertwined, a carefully cultivated relationship that is now raising uncomfortable questions at the Philadelphia school.

For at least some Temple students, the fresh scrutiny that Cosby is facing over allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted several young women decades ago has cast an unflattering light on the school's tight association with him.

Cosby, who is a frequent visitor to the sprawling urban campus, spoke at Temple's graduation ceremonies in May and serves on its board of trustees. The Philadelphia native has sported sweatshirts bearing the university's logo so often that his fans find it difficult to hear the Temple name without thinking of its most famous alumnus.

Critics are concerned that the school, which fall formed a committee to review how it handles sexual misconduct on campus, has declined comment on all aspects of its relationship with Cosby.

"If Temple wants this to be a safer place for victims of sexual assault, a start would be addressing these allegations," said Grace Holleran, who wrote a column in the student newspaper earlier this month headlined "Stop Revering Bill Cosby."

"It's hard to take it seriously when there’s a huge scandal surrounding a member of the Board of Trustees and no one is talking about it."

Cosby's lawyers have called the allegations of sexual assault "discredited" and "defamatory" and the actor has refused to comment on the matter in interviews.

Even so, Cosby's career has been dealt a series of setbacks this week as the alleged grievances spread in the media. NBC this week canceled an upcoming project with Cosby and Netflix Inc postponed his stand-up comedy special due to be released this month.

Temple has a long and proud association with Cosby, who attended in 1961-1962 and earned his bachelor's degree in 1971. The relationship has enabled the school to bask in the prestige of a beloved black father figure who honed his image on "The Cosby Show" during its 1984-92 run.

Temple would not disclose how much money he has given the school. His family funds two small scholarships at the university, which has some 38,000 students.

For Cosby, who also earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, the association with Temple has enhanced his credibility as an outspoken advocate of self-help and education for African-Americans.

Ray Smeriglio, president of Temple's student body, said fellow students have approached him on campus to talk about Cosby. "Students are concerned about these allegations and rightfully so," he said. "Mr. Cosby is a huge supporter of Temple."

Even so, Smeriglio said he was confident that Temple's administration would do the right thing, although he did not say what he thought that was.

Connor Pollock, a senior, said he expected the school would quietly disengage from Cosby rather than make a grand gesture.

"With so many people coming forward, there's definitely something going on there," he said. "I think there will be a silent drawing away from him as a personality at the school."

But other students roundly condemned Temple for its silence and said that was symptomatic of an insensitivity to the issue of sexual violence on campus, an issue that universities across the country have started to address more forcefully.

"The routine, implicit support that the university gives figures like Bill Cosby by inviting them to campus events (or in Cosby's case, having him on the board of trustees) is just another a clear example of the university's woefully inadequate handling of and responses to sexual violence in the campus community," Molly Lawrence, a senior political science major, said in an email.

(Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Bill Trott)