Poughkeepsie, NY – Bill O’Reilly is Marist College’s most famous alum, but some would say the most infamous alum. The recent news about sexual harassment lawsuits that O’Reilly has settled has put him under fire and was released by Fox News earlier this year in April. In response to these developments, the Marist faculty has taken action by starting a petition to remove the honorable degree that O’Reilly was given in 2001.
On October 21st, 2017 the New York Times reported that Bill O’Reilly settled with Lis Wiehl for $32 million dollars for sexual harassment allegations. Earlier that year in April the Times reported that five women settled with O’Reilly or Fox News for a total of $13 million dollars in order to stay quiet. However, the $32 million dollar settlement was the last straw for a group of Marist faculty.
On October 27th, six days after the New York Times report, a petition to remove the honorable degree given to Bill O’Reilly during his commencement speech in 2001 started going around the faculty. The petition was started by a group of professors that include Political Science Department Chair Dr. Joanne Myers, English Department Chair Eileen Curley, Dr. Marina Malita, Dr. Janine Peterson, Dr. Kristin Bayer, Dr. Michael Sullivan, and Dr. James Tyler. All are faculty of the School of Liberal Arts at Marist that is headed by the Dean, Dr. Martin Shaffer who refused to comment on this story and has not signed the petition. The petition currently has 119 signatures from the faculty at Marist and the faculty is planning on giving President Yellen the petition at the end of the fall semester to present to the Board of Trustees. The group leading the petition does not know if there is a specific number that they need in terms of signatures for President Yellen to bring the petition to the Board of Trustees. “I don’t think there’s an ‘official’ number of signatures that would automatically trigger the President taking an issue to the Board” said Elizabeth Tavarez, the Assistant Vice President for College Marketing and Communication at Marist college.
Neither the Board of Trustees or the President of Marist, David Yellen have publicly condemned the reported actions of Mr. O’Reilly. When asked if the Board of Trustees have discussed rescinding the honorable degree that Mr. O’Reilly, Director of Media Relations for Marist College Julia Fischman responded via e-mail:
The awarding of honorary degrees has traditionally been a routine matter, and the College does not currently have a specific policy in place. 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. We recently began the process of formulating a Board policy on these matters. Until these policies are finalized, we will not comment on any specific honorary degree recipient.
Fischman would go on to say that discussions of the matter first took place in a November board meeting and the Board would further discuss this during their next board meeting in February. When reaching out to President Yellen’s office for further comment, the exact same statement was sent.
“(O’Reilly) is not an honorary person, he is not a person that we should honor with this degree because he does not stand up for what we as a Marist community uphold,” said Dr. Myers. On their website Marist’s mission is as follows “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”. The school’s value statement is supposed to uphold the mission statement “The College fulfills its mission by pursuing three ideals: excellence in education, a sense of community, and a commitment to service. These ideals were handed down to us by the Marist Brothers who founded the College. Now an independent institution governed by a lay board of trustees, Marist continues to embrace the three ideals as an integral part of the College mission,” this is also found on the Marist website. The group of faculty feel that the mission and vision statement have been compromised by Mr. O’Reilly and removing the honorable degree would uphold the mission and vision statement that Marist abides by. “I feel most strongly about is taking this scholarship away is symbolic, it is not going to fix any culture that surrounds sexual harassment on campus, but I think it is step that would send the signal that we want to be part of a nationwide movement to reform some of the practices that we are learning about as these revelations have out these last several months,” said Dr. O’Sullivan. Communication Department Chair Dr. Jen Eden, has not signed the petition but supports what the petition stands for. “I don’t support individuals that act like that, So that would be something I personally support, (O’Reilly) does not seem like someone that follows the Marist moral code,” said Dr. Eden.
Mr. O’Reilly does have other ties to Marist, including two scholarships – one in his parents name and the other in former History professor Peter O’Keefe’s name. The Winfred and William O’Reilly Scholarship and is awarded annually to a upper-class students that need financial aid, community involvement is looked at for consideration. In 2015, Mr. O’Reilly donated $1 million dollars to Marist to set up the Peter P. O’Keefe, PhD. Endowed Scholarship that started with an incoming member of the class of 2020. The scholarship provides full financial support annually and is given to a student that has demonstrated special promise in academic and leadership roles who would not be able to afford the tuition at Marist. The petition does not state whether Marist should take away the scholarships and give the money back to O’Reilly “If we gave him back the money it would hurt our students, we don’t want to hurt our student, it would also give him back the money to pay his lawyers,” said Dr. Myers.
The petition does state that Mr. O’Reilly publicly admitted to the sexual harassment allegations that have been brought forward. However, Mr. O’Reilly publicly denies the allegations against him and say they are a liberal conspiracy according to the New York Times. Mr. O’Reilly states that he settled and did not go to court because he wanted to protect his kids from the turmoil and the press coverage that would have consumed his family.