Phylicia Rashad's support of Bill Cosby rattles Howard University community

FILE - Phylicia Rashad arrives at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 15, 2019. Rashad is returning to her alma mater as the new dean of the Howard University College of Fine Arts. The longtime performer and Tony Award winner who role to cultural prominence as Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" graduated magna cum laude from Howard with a bachelor's in fine arts in 1970. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
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Phylicia Rashad began her newest role, as dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts at Howard University on Thursday — something many students and alumni had been eagerly anticipating since the appointment was announced.

What they weren't anticipating was a tweet she sent the day before, celebrating the release of her friend and former television husband, Bill Cosby, from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction.

While many expressed shock and fury over Cosby going free on a technicality, Rashad tweeted (and later deleted), "FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!"

Quickly, some of the outrage aimed at Cosby was also turned on Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable, the wife of Cosby's Cliff Huxtable, on the beloved TV series "The Cosby Show."

But nowhere were feelings more immediate and complicated than at Howard University. The exhilaration and pride that had followed the May announcement that the class of 1970 alumna and Tony Award-winning actress would be joining the staff was, for many, replaced with dismay, rage and shame.

Just a few weeks before, Katherine Gilyard had joked that she'd switch her major from the School of Communications to the College of Fine Arts just to learn from Rashad. But after reading Rashad's tweets, she said, her stomach churned.

"Now, I wouldn't walk past Fine Arts if she remains like the current dean of the school," Gilyard said. "To see how happy she was, rejoicing and thrilled that it's been overturned … I feel disgusted. That was like a very visceral reaction. My stomach kind of turned, like this is disgusting and not something you expect from someone like that. Yes, they should fire her, but knowing Howard, I don't think they will."

Many people wondered, both publicly on social media and privately, how Rashad could celebrate Cosby's release after more than 60 women had accused him of assault. More important: How could she be trusted to oversee the needs of college students and campus sexual assault survivors?

Howard distanced itself from Rashad's initial statement nine hours later, posting its own statement.

"Survivors of sexual assault will always be our priority. 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. Personal positions of University leadership do not reflect Howard University’s policies," it read.

"We will continue to advocate for survivors fully and support their right to be heard," the statement continued. "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."

On Friday, Rashad, who has since deleted her original tweet, sent a letter to Howard students apologizing for her comments celebrating Cosby's release: “My remarks were in no way directed toward survivors of sexual assault,” she wrote. “I vehemently oppose sexual violence, find no excuse for such behavior, and I know that Howard University has a zero-tolerance policy toward interpersonal violence.” Rashad also pledged to "engage in active listening and participate in trainings" to "become a stronger ally to sexual assault survivors and everyone who has suffered at the hands of an abuser."

Even so, many members of Howard's Bison family, remain, at best, cautious, and at worst, furious.

"Howard should absolutely fire her," said alumna Nylah Burton, "because she's not fit to be a dean of students. For someone like that, when they have such passionate support of a rapist, the fear is not just that you will be ignored or dismissed. The fear is that you'll be retaliated against, that you'll be attacked, and you'll be punished for speaking out."

For Burton, 26, Rashad's comment felt very personal; she left Howard University in 2018 following a sexual assault. Her assailant, another Howard student, was suspended. Last summer, after many current and former students shared stories on social media about sexual violence that they experienced as undergrads, Burton organized the Black Survivors Healing Fund. So far it has raised more than $42,000 in donations to assist survivors in the Howard community.

Support for the fund and the rise of student groups advocating for consent education are a step forward, she said, but not enough. And Rashad's comment leaves her wondering how seriously the administration takes those efforts.

"It just does not surprise me that Phylicia Rashad tweeted out such exuberant support of Bill Cosby," Burton said. "But it's really disappointing thinking about all the students who, like myself during my time at Howard, go through a sexual assault thinking, 'OK, who do I turn to for support,' and she's the dean."

Gilyard has similar feelings and a similar story. She was assaulted in her dorm in 2012 and spent the next six years pursuing justice in the courts; her assailant is in jail. She left the university for a brief time, then returned and, in fall 2020, founded a new organization called Survivors Instead, a nonprofit that provides support and networking resources to often-overlooked women of color who are survivors of sexual assault.

Gilyard tweeted that the statement from the university felt like a "deep belly laugh" in the face of survivors. She feels disappointed, she said, and sees a clear disconnect between Rashad's initial tweet and her follow-up statement supporting survivors. She also noted Rashad's long-time defense of Cosby, including a 2015 interview with Showbiz 411 during which Rashad said, "Forget these women." (In a later interview, Rashad claimed she was misquoted.)

Gilyard's disappointment is shared by fellow alumna Soraya Nadia McDonald. The Pulitzer Prize finalist and culture critic for the Undefeated understands what a big get Rashad was for Howard University, a school with a rich and storied history, which is exactly why she found Rashad's statement so alarming.

The theater community, McDonald said, "is so small and people are still scared to speak up. Part of what's really disturbing about Phylicia Rashad's tweet is ... it also affirms this idea that we don't want to think about sexual assault survivors, hear from them, or be reminded of them."

"Comments like that from someone who is in such a position of authority," she continued, "makes you wonder what they're going to do, because the reputation that Howard has already, from reporting from places like BuzzFeed News, is that it was already sort of turning a blind eye institutionally to sexual assault."

Like many universities, Howard has been criticized for having an inadequate response to reports of sexual assault. While an undergraduate, McDonald said, she was sexually assaulted by another Howard student but did not report it. "On some level, I internalized that, you know, it wasn't worth it to come forward because it would just be more trauma."

A group of men and women pose for a portrait while sitting in chairs
The cast of "The Cosby Show," seen in 2002, included, from left: Sabrina Le Beauf, Tempestt Bledsoe, Bill Cosby, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Phylicia Rashad, Raven-Symoné and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. (Richard Drew / Associated Press)

She recalled a BuzzFeed story in which Black women at Spelman College in Atlanta, another historically Black school, spoke out about being assaulted by men from Morehouse.

"There was this expectation, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, that Black women be quiet to protect Black men because we exist in a society that is heavily shaped by white supremacy — as if Black women don't also live in that same society," McDonald said. "But it's also heavily shaped by rape culture. But that never seems to be as important. That is indicative of a broader problem with rape culture across college campuses, right, just in American culture in general."

One recent graduate, who did not want to disclose her full name, said she was in shock after reading Rashad's celebratory tweet, adding that many were concerned Rashad's statement would have a silencing effect.

As a part of her transfer-student orientation, the graduate recalled, she attended a floor meeting in which students were told that if they report their assault to a faculty member, the individual is expected to relay that information higher up. The question is whether students have faith that Rashad will.

"I think that this situation is definitely cause for termination," she continued, "Just because she's a dean and so many girls are just not going to feel comfortable going to the dean. [For] survivors, it's already hard to feel like you can speak about what happened to you. A lot of women don't feel safe speaking to just anyone about it, usually just their circle of friends or maybe family."

Not everyone is calling for Rashad's termination.

Rising junior Alana McClellan is a communications major at Howard University, pursuing a minor in theater arts. To her, Rashad's appointment felt like an accomplishment, signaling that the College of Fine Arts was moving in a positive direction. Now, she said, the mood of the moment has shifted across the student body.

"I definitely believe that it makes [survivors] feel uncomfortable," McClellan said. "It makes them feel like their trust has been breached. I had a board meeting within my acting club, and somebody put in the chat like, 'That comment she said today has put her on thin ice.' But we're still going to acknowledge that she's our dean. It's putting people in this awkward position."

McClellan said that these tweets have not tainted her view of Rashad, "because I believe that she knows more than what I know," but she said questions have arisen among students regarding Rashad's tweets. However, McClellan is among the crowd of people who believe Rashad should not be fired.

Neither does alumna Tiffani Ashley Bell who said that while she found Rashad's tweet unnecessary, she thinks the moment offers an opportunity for important discussions.

"My reaction is simply that, you know, there could have been more of a private communication between she and Bill [Cosby] there," Bell said. "I think there should have been better consideration for survivors and ... for students who may in the future endure that. If anything, this is a good place to perhaps start a dialogue further on campus, and this could be an opportunity for Dean Rashad to turn things around and become more of an advocate."

McDonald believes that ultimately, it is up to students to decide whether they trust Rashad. She wants students who are survivors to know they are not alone.

"They deserve to be at Howard, and they shouldn't have to leave the university because of something that was done to them," she said. "I hope they make their voices heard."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.