Howard U. Dean’s Support of Bill Cosby Reignites Criticism of University’s Handling of Sex-Assault Cases

Howard University has come under fire after an incoming dean voiced her support for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to overturn Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault conviction.

Phylicia Rashad, who takes office this month as dean of the College of Fine Arts, posted a viral tweet on Wednesday: “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

Cosby was convicted on three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault in 2018 and served nearly three years of his sentence before he was released on Wednesday. He had been publicly accused by nearly 60 women of sexual assault in the years leading up to his conviction.

By Thursday afternoon, Rashad’s tweet had been deleted.

In a daylong discourse on Twitter on Wednesday, many expressed frustration with her reaction, and some asked that she be removed from the Howard faculty.

Others revisited criticism of how the university, in Washington, D.C., had managed reports of sexual assault. In 2017, students sued Howard, claiming it had knowingly allowed two students who were alleged serial rapists to remain on campus. The case was reportedly settled in 2020.

The university started a campuswide initiative, #HUStands, in 2019, in an effort to raise awareness of and support for students who were victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. Last year, current and former Howard students shared stories on social media about sexual assaults they had experienced on campus, and a Black Survivors Healing Fund was created on GoFundMe.

In a follow-up tweet, Rashad said that she supports victims of sexual assault, noting that she has friends and family members who have suffered lifelong residual effects of similar experiences.

It’s not the first time she’s walked back her support for Cosby. In a 2015 interview with Showbiz411, Rashad — who starred with Cosby in The Cosby Show and Cosby — defended him and expressed skepticism over the sexual-assault allegations. She later said she had been misquoted.

Howard released a statement on Wednesday evening distancing itself from Rashad’s initial tweet.

“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,” said the statement. “Personal positions of university leadership do not reflect Howard University’s policies.”

Wil Gafney, a 1997 graduate of Howard’s School of Divinity, said she feared that Rashad’s comments would make current students apprehensive about coming forward as victims of sexual assault.

“This perpetuates the cultural framework in which women and girls who report sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are not treated as full citizens at the table,” said Gafney, a professor at Brite Divinity School, in Texas. “This perpetuates that dismissal.”

The university said it stands by survivors and challenges the systems that deny them justice.

“We have full confidence that our faculty and school leadership will live up to this sacred commitment,” the university’s statement said.

For Tanyka M. Barber, a senior associate at TNG, a risk-management company for educational institutions, and a former Title IX coordinator at Morgan State University, conversations like these reinforce the importance of acknowledging the issue of sexual assault that all colleges grapple with.

“Every institution,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle, “should work to create a level of transparency, accountability, and trust with their campus community so that students, faculty, and staff are confident that the institution is truly committed to addressing sexual violence in a manner that is prompt, effective, and equitable.”

Correction (1/2/2021, 12:19 p.m.): A previous version of this article used the wrong pronoun for Wil Gafney. Gafney’s pronouns are she/her.

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