By Curtis Bunn
When Phylicia Rashad, a Howard University alum and the new dean of its college of fine arts, tweeted her resounding support for former co-star Bill Cosby’s sudden release from prison Wednesday, it caused a ripple among Howard students and alumni.
Moments after the news broke that Cosby, convicted in 2018 of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand had his conviction overturned and was released from prison after nearly three years, Rashad tweeted, “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted—a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”
On Friday, Rashad apologized to Howard University students and parents for her tweet, which appears to have been deleted.
In a letter to students and parents, she wrote, “I offer my most sincere apology . . .My remarks were in no way directed towards survivors of sexual assault. 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.”
Sheryl Wesley, who graduated from Howard in 1996, said she was taken aback by Rashad’s initial comments.
“She now has a responsibility to a body of students and in particular women students,” Wesley said. “She should not feel comfortable to immediately release her personal relief of someone who she considers a friend, but who was convicted of crimes against women. Without concern she openly supported him without considering the institution she has graduated from, and now represents and women who have been victimized.”
“This overturned verdict has triggered those who have been victimized or those who know someone who has been victimized by sexual assault or attempted assault or harassment,” she added. “And for her to make those comments when women are assaulted on college campuses across the country almost every day was irresponsible.”
Wesley’s perspective captured the tenor of many students and alums of one of the most renowned historically Black colleges in the country who took to social media to rebuke their fellow graduate.
Alicia Sanchez posted on Twitter: “As a Howard School of Fine Arts alum, and as a survivor,” she said, she found the tweet “disappointing. I hope we can have a dean who believes and respects survivors.”
Cosby called in to a Philadelphia radio show and proclaimed that he had been falsely imprisoned. “This is not just a Black thing,” he said. “This is for all the people who have been imprisoned wrongfully regardless of race, color or creed. Because I met them in there. People who talked about what happened and what they did. And I know there are many liars out there.”
Cosby was released from prison on a procedural issue. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that a prosecutor’s decision not to charge Cosby, 83, in an earlier case created the opportunity for him to speak freely in a lawsuit against him, allowing him to believe he would not be incriminating himself. A second prosecutor later used the lawsuit testimony in the criminal trial, with Cosby’s testimony as the vital component to his conviction on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault of drugging and assaulting Constand, a former Temple University employee and mentee, in 2004. He was sentenced to three to 10-years.
Sheila Miller, a 1989 Howard graduate, said Rashad “shouldn’t have said what she did in her tweet. But people have to realize that they are friends. . . She is entitled to her opinion whether we agree with it or not. It’s called the First Amendment.”
Additionally, she said Rashad’s comments “have nothing to do with her role as dean. I could see if she had commented on a topic or issue that directly impacts her duties and responsibilities as dean. But this doesn’t.”
Many Howard students and alumni refused to be interviewed on Rashad’s comments, saying, in general, “It’s a sensitive thing at Howard.”
One incoming Howard freshman on Twitter, however, did chime in: “This is honestly making me really sad. LOL. As a theater major I no longer feel safe enrolling there this fall.”
The allegations against Cosby ranged from groping to sexual assault to rape involving 60 women spanning decades. He insisted that his contact with Constand was consensual, and he has denied all other allegations of wrongdoing.
Cosby had been considered “America’s Dad” for his role as Heathcliff Huxtable on the blockbuster NBC series “The Cosby Show,” a program that showed atypical images of Black life. He played the role of a doctor and the head of an affluent family, with Rashad as his lawyer-wife Clair.
After her initial tweet, Rashad followed up by saying, “I fully support survivors of sexual assault coming forward. 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.”
Of course, by then, the fire had been lit.
Howard University released a statement on social media late Wednesday night that read: “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 toward survivors of sexual assault. Personal positions of university leadership do not reflect Howard University’s policies. 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.”
Wesley said she accepted the statement, but was still concerned. “Students and their guardians want to feel protected — mind, body and soul,” she said. “This particular case may give them pause or trepidation on what signal this sends out to other predators.”
“The thing is,” Darius Billings, a 1997 graduate of Howard, said, “this younger generation of students don’t know her as ‘Clair Huxtable.’ They will now know her as a dean who defended a man who was convicted of sexual assault.
“She put herself in a position that’s tough to back out of. You can support your friend, but I hate that people rely so much on social media to share their feelings. If he did these things he was convicted of, the victims have lifelong scars. She has to understand, especially coming into this new job on a campus full of Black women, that there would be questions after a tweet like that.”
Updated at 10:25 a.m. on 7/3/2021 to include Rashad’s apology in headline and story.