Debate over Bill Cosby hits Howard University


Temple University has been, until now, the university that has been hurt the most by the Bill Cosby scandal. Before he was convicted of sexual assault, in 2018, Temple was seen as being too slow to revoke honors for Cosby. It acted only after he was convicted, saying, "In 1991, based on his career achievements, Temple awarded an honorary degree to William Cosby. Yesterday, Dr. Cosby was found guilty by a jury of the felony of aggravated sexual assault. Today the Temple University Board of Trustees has accepted the recommendation of the university to rescind the honorary degree."

When Temple did consider the matter, it said that Patrick J. O’Connor, then chairman of the Board of Trustees, didn't participate in the discussion. That's because he was previously a lawyer for Cosby. And Cosby himself was on the Temple board until he resigned in 2014. And of course Cosby is a Temple alumnus and longtime donor.

The victim in the case, Andrea Constand, was formerly director of operations for Temple's women's basketball team. She met Cosby several times between 2001 and 2004, and she said Cosby contacted her at her office to discuss university-related matters.

So how has Howard University been hurt by the scandal?

It started with a seeming success for the university. In May, the university named Phylicia Rashad dean of its College of Fine Arts, effective July 1, 2021.

“It is an honor to welcome one of Howard’s acclaimed daughters back home to alma mater. In this full circle moment, Ms. Phylicia Rashad will take the training and skills that she honed as a student at Howard and exuded in an outstanding performing career, and she will share those pearls of wisdom with the next generation of students in the College of Fine Arts. Her passion for the arts and student success makes her a perfect fit for this role,” said Provost Anthony K. Wutoh at the time.

Rashad may be best known for playing Clair Huxtable, the fictional wife of Cliff Huxtable, the wise and lovable dad on The Cosby Show, but she also has worked in film and on stage, winning praise and numerous awards for her performances. Her hiring was viewed as a coup for Howard.

Then last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Cosby's 2018 conviction was invalid and ordered his release from prison. The ruling was not because the court didn't believe Constand or the other women who accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them. The court noted that a previous prosecutor in the case, Bruce L. Castor Jr., had found “insufficient” evidence to pursue the case. But Castor encouraged Cosby to testify in a civil case brought by Constand. Cosby testified that he gave quaaludes to women he was pursuing for sex. That testimony was cited -- inappropriately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled -- in his trial on charges that were brought by Castor's successors.

Rashad tweeted on the day the decision came down, "FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted -- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!"

Since then, Howard students and alumni have pushed for her removal as dean. On Twitter, the hashtag is #ByePhylicia.

Rashad has twice apologized and Cosby has weighed in as well, releasing a statement on July 4 defending Rashad's original statement.

First (the same day Rashad weighed in on Cosby's release from jail) Rashad released this tweet (and took down the original one).

That did little to make the controversy go away, and Howard released a statement that made clear that her first tweet was not the university's position.

Then on Friday, Rashad sent out another statement addressed to Howard students and parents.

"This week, I tweeted a statement that caused so much hurt in so many people -- both broadly and inside the Howard community. I offer my most sincere apology," she wrote. "I am sorry. I intend to earn your trust and your forgiveness.

"My remarks were in no way directed toward 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 … Over the next few weeks, I plan to engage in active listening and participate in trainings to not only reinforce university protocol and conduct, but also how I can become a stronger ally to sexual assault survivors."

While those remarks were more apologetic than her first comment on the reaction to her support for Cosby's release, critics -- many of them Howard students or alumni -- have continued to denounce her on social media.

One exception is the statement from Cosby. The following quotes are verbatim from that statement to Deadline.

“Howard University you must support ones Freedom of Speech (Ms. Rashad), which is taught or suppose to be taught everyday at that renowned law school, which resides on your campus,” said Cosby.

“This mainstream media are the Insurrectionists, who stormed the Capitol. Those same Media Insurrectionists are trying to demolish the Constitution of these United State of America on this Independence Day. No technicality -- it’s a violation of ones rights & we the people stand in support of Ms. Phylicia Rashad.”

The criticisms of Rashad and Howard university continue.

Crystal Marie, a Howard alumna, noted in a widely shared essay in The Root last week that this is not the first time Rashad has defended Cosby. Marie reminded readers that in an interview in 2015, Rashad said, "Forget these women. What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated. I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture."

Marie wrote that she gasped in disappointment when she read Rashad's more recent defense of Cosby.

"My next thoughts were of the students, namely the women at Howard University, many who were likely excited to call her dean. Did their faces fall to see their leader celebrating a man who himself had admitted to drugging women with prescription drugs? Was she one less person they could count on to support them if they experienced an assault on their college campus, a place many young women first encounter sexual violence?"

Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said Rashad's original reaction to Cosby's release shows that "she's untrustworthy." Her apology was predictable, while her original tweet reflected her views, Clark said.

Clark said she could understand why a university would want to hire an acclaimed actress to lead its arts school.

"But I'd want someone who had studied higher education as well," she said. "And she likely hasn't."

If a student was thinking of telling Rashad about a sexual assault on campus, she would have real reasons to doubt that Rashad would do the right thing, Clark said.

"She is willing to put her relationship [with Cosby] above what happened," Clark said. "I don't believe it was a good hire."

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Image Caption: 
Bill Cosby, after his release from prison
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