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Honorary degrees for celebrities: persona, scandal, and the case of Bill Cosby
journal contributionposted on 2021-01-01, 00:00 authored by K Lee, David MarshallDavid Marshall
The conferring of an honorary degree on an entertainment celebrity has become an increasingly regular and routine practice, a symptom of how readily the value and capital accumulated in entertainment industries can be converted into value in another field like academia. In this paper, we argue that the celebrity persona is a crucial factor in easing what Driessens has called ‘the exchange rate’ of such movements across fields of activity. As a case study, we turn to Bill Cosby, a (once) popular entertainer who, as the recipient of no less than 71 honorary degrees over three decades, was a long-time favourite on the American Commencement circuit. Through Cosby’s prolific career and equally prolific honours, we can trace the role of persona in creating forms of value that academic institutions have found useful. Cosby’s case is instructive because his recent disgrace highlights the mutability of celebrity personas and how the practices of conferring and rescinding honorary degrees work to absorb and affirm public personas.