Tyson’s honorary degree comes into question

Donning a baby blue doctoral gown — Columbia University’s signature color — Neil deGrasse Tyson shook the hand of University President Peter Salovey as he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Yale Commencement last May.

Seven months later, Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist, the presenter of the TV series “Cosmos” and the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has come under fire after four women levied allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Students and faculty members interviewed by the News expressed conflicted feelings over the allegations against a friend, colleague and childhood hero. Some advocated for the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body that confers honorary degrees, to undertake an independent investigation into whether they should rescind Tyson’s honorary degree.

“The Yale honorary doctorate of humane letters was bestowed upon Dr. Tyson because of his public service record, which still stands as exemplary,” wrote astronomy professor Debra Fischer in an email to the News. “I am so disappointed to hear these allegations.”

Last April, the University broke a more than 200-year precedent by revoking the honorary degree awarded to comedian Bill Cosby less than week after he was convicted of sexual assault. The decision reversed Yale’s long-standing commitment to maintaining honorary degrees, opening the door to questions of how trustees would decide to revoke the honor.

The first of Tyson’s accusers, Tchiya Amet, confronted Tyson at a Q&A in 2010, alleging that when the two of them were graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, Tyson drugged and raped her, according to a 2018 story from the blog Patheos.

On Nov. 29, Patheos published two more allegations against the astrophysicist. Ashley Watson, Tyson’s former production assistant at “Cosmos,” told Patheos that she quit her job after Tyson invited her to his apartment, tried to convince her to have sex with him and demonstrated “predatory tendencies” last May. Katelyn Allers, a physics and astronomy professor at Bucknell University, alleged that Tyson wanted to see if her solar system tattoo included Pluto, so he “followed the tattoo into [her] dress” at a 2009 American Astronomical Society party, according to the Patheos report.

Tyson posted a lengthy response to these allegations in a Facebook post on Saturday. He cast doubt on Amet’s recollection, questioning whether she had fabricated the incident on account of his fame.

“It is as though a false memory had been implanted, which, because it never actually happened, had to be remembered as an evening she doesn’t remember,” Tyson wrote.

In the post, he also disputed Watson’s account of the evening, claiming that he “never touched her until [he] shook her hand upon departure.” And in defense of his behavior toward Allers, which he described as “simply a search [for Plato] under the covered part of her shoulder of the sleeveless dress,” he wrote, “I only just learned (nine years after) that she thought this behavior creepy.”

He wrote that “evidence always matters” with any claim and welcomed ongoing investigations by National Geographic and Fox Broadcasting — the networks that air his shows “StarTalk” and “Cosmos,” respectively — as well as the American Museum of Natural History, which houses the Hayden Planetarium that he directs.

Then, on Wednesday, Buzzfeed News reported that a fourth woman had accused Tyson of harassing her at a holiday party. Tyson has not yet issued a public response to the most recent allegation.

As the allegations mount against Tyson, it is unclear whether the Corporation will investigate the four women’s claims or vote to rescind Tyson’s honorary degree. Each year, the 16 trustees choose to bestow the award upon around eight prominent individuals. In the wake of Cosby’s guilty verdict, trustees were quick to decide to revoke his degree.

Catharine Bond Hill GRD ’85, senior trustee of the Corporation, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

University spokesperson Tom Conroy told the News that there is an expectation that the Corporation’s decision to rescind a honorary degree will be “exceedingly rare.” He did not comment on the allegations against Tyson.

Four professors and students interviewed by the News denounced Tyson’s alleged actions and called for Yale to ensure it holds its honorary degree recipients to an ethical standard.

“I believe that if the allegations of rape or sustained employee harassment are true, then the honorary degree was not a good idea and should be reconsidered, through the appropriate process, including an investigation,” wrote physics professor Meg Urry, a peer of Tyson’s, in an email to the News. “If Neil is found to have done those things, I will be very disappointed in a friend and colleague I have known for decades.”

Astrophysics major Nat Kerman ’20 said students at Yale begin their studies in astrophysics and astronomy knowing Tyson’s name, adding that the allegations were disheartening.

“I’ve almost come to terms with the fact that we’re going to keep losing childhood heroes,” Kerman said.

Another astrophysics major, Daniel Heimsoth ’20, said that he was hesitant to ascribe bad intentions to Tyson’s interactions with Allers and Watson. In televised interviews of Tyson, the astrophysicist appears to lack social awareness, Heimsoth speculated.

He added that, if the administration considers rescinding Tyson’s honorary degree, it should first consult with the faculty members and students in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Departments.

Yale Women in Physics, an undergraduate student group, wrote in a statement to the News that they were “shocked and concerned” after learning of the allegations levied against Tyson. They plan to watch the Fox and National Geographic investigations closely.

“Sexual harassment and assault is a serious issue, especially in fields where women are underrepresented such as in physics and astronomy,” read the statement. “Neil deGrasse Tyson has been one of the few public, well known role models for underrepresented racial minorities in physics and, assuming the allegations are true, this is a devastating blow.”

Twenty other universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Richmond, have awarded Tyson an honorary degree.

Maddie Bender | madeline.bender@yale.edu

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu

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