Howard Students and Alumni Call for Phylicia Rashad’s Firing Over Bill Cosby Support
Howard University’s newest dean celebrated Bill Cosby’s prison release. A number of students and alums, many of whom are survivors of sexual assault, want her gone.
Mere hours after Bill Cosby’s TV wife Phylicia Rashad celebrated her former co-star’s shock release from prison, she attempted to walk back her joyous statement following a tidal wave of backlash.
Cosby, 83, walked out of a Pennsylvania prison on Wednesday, serving just three years of his three to 10-year sentence for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. The state’s supreme court suddenly overturned the disgraced comic’s 2018 conviction on a legal technicality—it found the prosecutor couldn’t go back on his predecessor’s declaration not to charge him.
Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable alongside Cosby for eight seasons on The Cosby Show, was thrilled. “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted—a miscarriage of justice is corrected,” she not only tweeted, but shared on Instagram.
It did not go over well for Rashad, who was tapped in May by Howard University to be its new dean of College of Fine Arts, recently renamed to honor the late actor and former student Chadwick Boseman.
The 73-year-old was immediately slammed, as people raised the question of how students could feel comfortable reporting instances of sexual assault to a dean who had rejoiced in the release of an alleged serial predator who had 60 women publicly come forward to accuse him of assault?
Howard alumni and others began calling for the university to fire Rashad, using the hashtag #ByePhylicia. In an attempt at damage control, she deactivated her comments.
“I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward,” Rashad conceded. “My post was in no way intended to be insensitive to their truth. Personally, I know from friends and family that such abuse has lifelong residual effects. My heartfelt wish is for healing.”
Still, Rashad’s initial tweet in support of Cosby remained up, despite people pointing out that if she truly meant what she said, it would be deleted. Of course, she had already made her stance on Cosby clear in 2015. “Forget these women,” she said, dismissing the accusations of models Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson. “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated.”
Howard stayed quiet on the brewing controversy until late Wednesday night, issuing an overall weak and deflective response, saying “personal positions of university leadership do not reflect Howard University’s policies.”
“Survivors of sexual assault will always be our priority,” the statement, which was unattributed, said in full. “While Dean Rashad has acknowledged in her follow-up tweet that victims must be heard and believed, her initial tweet lacked sensitivity towards survivors of sexual assault... We will continue to advocate for survivors fully and support their right to be heard. Howard will stand with survivors and challenge systems that would deny them justice. We have full confidence that our faculty and school leadership will live up to this sacred commitment.”
Still, Howard’s statement didn’t cut it for some current students and alumni.
“Hold her ass accountable,” Whitney Meritus, class of 2024, declared on Instagram. “I’d take a non-famous dean who believes SA victims over a celebrity dean who does shit like this... Don’t get me wrong, I know she was his professor and all, but I don’t think she deserves to lead the Chadwick A. Boseman School of Fine Arts. Not anymore.”
Alum Nylah Burton told The Daily Beast that she was disappointed by Rashad’s statement, but not necessarily surprised. “I am learning not to expect anything from people when it comes to this issue of supporting survivors and sexual assault,” she explained. “I’ve just learned that people are just kind of shitty, and especially the more people are empowered.”
“So, when I saw her tweet, I honestly was not surprised. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, maybe I’m supposed to say that I’m shocked, disgusted, and can never imagine someone from my lovely university behaving this way. But that’s just not true. It didn’t surprise me.”
“I call for her removal, whether or not I’d have the energy to fight for it is a whole other thing,” she added.
Burton has unfortunately had her own experience dealing with a sexual assault at Howard, and wouldn’t be sure if she’d feel comfortable coming forward for help if Rashad was the dean of her college in light of her statement.
In recent years, the university has struggled to deal with reports of sexual assault. In 2017, six women filed suit against the university, alleging it had “acted with deliberate indifference” to their claims and had failed to remove serial predators from campus. The women eventually settled with Howard in 2020. Each year since, there has been a loud outcry over the school’s handling of sexual violence, leading Burton to establish the Black Survivors Healing Fund last summer.
The GoFundMe financially assists current and former Howard students who were sexually assaulted while attending the university. Burton, who works as a writer, was spurred into action after dozens of students began sharing their stories on Twitter of how they endured sexual violence, domestic abuse, and emotional abuse during their time as students.
Aiming to support 20 people in need at a time with $5,000 to ease whatever financial crisis they are facing, including therapy bills, emergency housing, or childcare, Burton has helped distribute $42,000 to date.
So, when she saw Rashad’s tweet, she figured it was a good time to plug the fund, which has seen a slowing down in donations. “I was like, ‘Well, if she’s gonna play bald-headed games on the internet, at the very least, we can get some money to survivors,’” Burton said.
Another alum of the esteemed HBCU, who did not wish to be named, told The Daily Beast that she was ready to cut all ties with Howard, including donations, if Rashad wasn’t removed as dean.
The alum explained that she was sexually assaulted as a student in the early 2000s. However, because of the lack of information and resources made readily available to students at the time, she never reported her assault.
Howard's statement in regard to Rashad “is extremely disappointing to see in 2021,” she said via Twitter DM.
“I have to ask myself if I want to associate/donate to Howard in the future or encourage my son to attend (something I always dreamed of). I expect them to terminate or her resignation, nothing short of that is acceptable to me.”
“The leadership needs to send a clear message that the campus culture is shifting,” she added.
Others felt the same. “As a Howard grad and survivor, I also can’t imagine the pressure to remain silence [sic] this adds to any student. We all deserve better,” Jennifer Valdivieso Parks said in a tweet.
“As a @HowardU School of Fine Arts alum, and as a survivor, this tweet from @PhyliciaRashad is disappointing,” Alicia Sanchez Gill chimed in. “I hope we can have a dean who believes & respects survivors.”
Alum Andrew Addison said he believed Rashad’s statement proved she wasn’t qualified for the position and it was now on Howard to “do the right thing and rectify the situation.”
Still, it would be shocking if Howard decided to fully cut ties with Rashad, a former student herself and a lifelong advocate for the university. The actress graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in fine arts in 1970.
Her late father Andrew Arthur Allen Sr. attended Howard’s dental school, graduating in 1945, and her sister Debbie Allen, an actress and dancer, graduated from Howard in 1971. Over the years, Rashad has taught courses there and acted as a mentor to Boseman, who graduated in 2000.
But by firing Rashad, students and alumni believe it would be a step in the right direction to prove to prospective and current students, and the Howard community as a whole, that it was taking matters of sexual assault and students’ safety seriously.
“I love Howard, but I know it needs to grow,” one former alum added. “I hope they do what needs to be done… They need to realize that they can’t sweep things under the rug anymore, there needs to be an effort to take honest responsibility for the students that have been hurt and the way they’ve failed to address sexual assault.”