May 20, 1998

In a Poignant Homecoming at His Son's College, Cosby Praises Teachers

By WILLIAM H. HONAN

In a monologue reminiscent of the tender-hearted curmudgeon he plays on television, Bill Cosby chided students at the 110th master's convocation of Teachers College of Columbia University with jokes about graduates who return home to freeload off of their parents. He later grew serious when he challenged the graduates to change the world -- and themselves.

At the conclusion of his remarks, which were greeted with a standing ovation and prolonged cheering by the 1,297 graduates assembled at St. John the Divine at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Cosby asked to be excused from speaking about his son, Ennis, who had been a doctoral student at Teachers College at the time of his death last year.

"Let me tell you how important I think teachers are," Cosby told his audience. "I think that if God had created a teacher first, then Adam and Eve would have been a lot better off."

Lightheartedly urging future teachers to make great demands of their students and their parents, Cosby observed: "There's nothing better for a teacher than having a parent come up and want to kill you."

Still only half-serious, he praised his parents, William and Anna Cosby, for signing a form letter that allowed his teachers to beat him. "Not only that," he said, "my mother cut the stick to do it with."

Then his challenge became more serious. "How many of you will stand up to the superintendent?" he asked. "How many of you will sign a petition because there is no heat in the classroom? I want you to start something. Teachers are God's children."

Speaking in the interview, Cosby said he had also delivered commencement addresses this year at the University of Southern California, Pepperdine University, Pembroke State University in North Carolina, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

"I like to see these fresh, wet faces going out into the world," he said with a laugh. "Other than at church or a wedding you don't see people like this. It's a getting for me, but it's also a giving. It's a spiritual experience."

He allowed that he had agreed to speak at Teachers College partly because he would be addressing the classmates and professors of his son, who had been studying the teaching of students with learning disabilities.

"Ennis and I often talked about what he was studying here, his professors, what he learned, the children he worked with in New York City, the ugly things that you find in big cities like New York," he said. "Ennis enjoyed trying to help the individual."

Although Cosby was lavish in his praise of Teachers College, he said he thought his son had made the right decision in doing his undergraduate work at Morehouse College, a historically black school in Atlanta.

"There has to be a comfort zone," he said. "I'm not saying nobody survives at the University of Michigan, but Ennis felt strengthened by seeing his own color."

"Ennis got a lacrosse scholarship to go somewhere else, but we thought Morehouse was the right choice," he said. "How much of a selling job do you have to do when you say Martin Luther King went there? Julian Bond went there? These schools are necessary until society catches up."

Cosby also spoke soberly when he urged graduates to pay back their Federal student loans. "If you pay off your student loan," he said, "you allow another person to pick up the loan and get an education! You stop politicians from saying 'We ought not have a loan because they don't pay it back.'"

Cosby received a Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company