A “terrible wrong is being righted,” Phylicia Rashad tweeted following Bill Cosby’s controversial release from Pennsylvania prison on Wednesday. Her comments prompted a response from her employer Howard University and Cosby himself.
The university issued a statement Wednesday, saying it prioritizes and supports sexual assault survivors. The university also said personal statements from Howard staff don’t reflect its policies.
In May, Howard University hired Rashad, who played Cosby’s wife on “The Cosby Show,” as dean of the recently re-established College of Fine Arts. July 1 was Rashad’s first day on the job. After the backlash, Rashad wrote she supports sexual assault survivors and didn’t mean to be insensitive.
“Survivors of sexual assault will always be our first priority,” the university’s statement read. “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.”
In response, Cosby expressed his support for Rashad in a July 4 statement to USA TODAY, released by his spokesperson Andrew Wyatt, adding that Howard University “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.”
Cosby’s statement also criticized “mainstream media,” calling them “the Insurrectionists, who stormed the Capitol,” referencing the Jan. 6 attack. “These same Media Insurrectionists are trying to demolish the Constitution of these United States of America on this Independence Day,” it read.
The statement concluded by claiming that his conviction wasn’t overturned on a “technicality.”
“NO TECHNICALITY — IT’S A VIOLATION OF ONES RIGHTS & WE THE PEOPLE STAND IN SUPPORT OF MS. PHYLICIA RASHAD.”
Following her tweets last week, Rashad’s comment section was quickly filled with Howard students, alumni and fans calling her tweet insensitive and disrespectful to sexual assault survivors.
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“As a woman, to see another woman support a man who hurt so many, it’s disappointing. As a Howard student, it’s unacceptable to see a dean supporting this,” Amber Lyon, a Howard University junior, told USA TODAY.
About 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault.
Howard alumna and sexual assault survivor Nylah Burton said she found Rashad’s tweets infuriating but not surprising.
In a 2015 interview, Rashad infamously defended Cosby against various assault accusations.
“Forget these women,” she said. “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. Someone is determined to keep Bill Cosby off TV, and it’s worked. All his contracts have been canceled.”
Burton said while Rashad maintains her fame and leadership within the university, survivors are left wondering who’s on their side.
“Dozens of women came forward against Cosby and that wasn’t enough for Rashad, that’s the message she sent to survivors,” Burton told USA TODAY. “So she’s absolutely unsafe as an educator and in her position of power.”
Burton created a GoFundMe page, titled Black Survivors Healing Fund, to support survivors’ healing process with counseling, rent and food, she said. She hopes the focus on Howard University can switch from Rashad back to student survivors in need and hurting.
“This experience, Rashad’s tweets and the spotlight on the university is a lot for myself and so many survivors. So instead of going back and forth about what Rashad was thinking, let’s talk about the people hurting,” Burton said.
Could Phylicia Rashad lose her job at Howard University?
Some social media users have urged and wondered whether Rashad could face consequences for her tweets. Historically, several college deans have stepped down or been fired following controversial or racially charged social media posts.
Jamie Riley, the University of Alabama’s former assistant vice president and dean of students, resigned from his position after a far-right news outlet resurfaced tweets where he addressed the American flag and history.
“The (American flag emoji) flag represents a systemic history of racism for my people,” Riley wrote in a September 2017 tweet. “Police are a part of that system. Is it that hard to see the correlation?”
Virginia Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts school in Virginia Beach, announced that Paul Ewell, a professor of management, business and economics, resigned after calling supporters of President-elect Joe Biden “ignorant, anti-American and anti-Christian” on social media.
North Carolina State University Vice Chancellor Mike Mullen was forced to resign last month after he referred to the Republican Party as the party of “Neo-Nazis” and “the KKK” on his Twitter account.
Howard University has not said if there will be any repercussions or action against Rashad.
Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda