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In the meantime, Cosby, who had once vowed to quit show business at 34 and become a teacher, sought to finish his education. The bachelor's degree that he did not complete at Temple was belatedly awarded to him on the basis of "life experience." Then he enrolled in a part-time doctoral program in education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was awarded an Ed.D. degree in 1977, a credential that Cosby proudly displays every week in the credits for his TV series ("William Cosby Jr., Ed.D." is listed as one of the show's three creators). His degree, however, has been attacked by a former professor who was on Cosby's dissertation committee, Reginald Damerell. In a 1985 book critical of the nation's education schools, Damerell noted that Cosby took virtually no classes, got course credit for appearing on Sesame Street and The Electric Company and wrote a dissertation that analyzed the impact of his own show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Degrees like Cosby's, Damerell charged, "do not attest to genuine academic achievement. They are empty credentials."
Cosby bristles at the accusation. "All I can tell you is that I completed every requirement that I was asked to complete," he says. Though later students at the school admit that Cosby's program was "not the most rigorous in the world," university officials insist he was given no special treatment. Cosby's dissertation, says Professor Louis Fischer, who was acting dean at the time, "was a very, very thorough, defensible study of the impact on children's values of the systematic watching of the Fat Albert program."
Cosby's now fabled return to prime time was still years away. Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, two ABC program executives, had approached Cosby's agent, Norman Brokaw, several times about creating a sitcom for the comic but had generated no interest. Early in 1984 that changed. Cosby says he had spent some time watching TV and was appalled at the "lack of anything you could feel good about watching with your family. It was all car chases and breasts and characters yelling at each other and saying Yowie!" Carsey and Werner (who had since left ABC and formed their own production company) revived their idea and took it to NBC, where Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff had been thinking of putting Cosby in a family series after seeing one of his monologues on the Tonight show.
"You have to remember how different a show we were proposing," says Werner. "Instead of getting laughs from arguments and conflicts between the husband and wife, we were going for subtler humor." NBC decided to take a chance on it, with no expectations of a blockbuster hit. But the show's debut episode hit the Nielsen top ten, and by midseason had taken firm hold of the No. 1 spot. The Cosby Show's huge success boosted NBC's entire Thursday-night schedule, helped lift the network from last place to first in the ratings and has given nightmares to opposing-network executives ever since.