Here, George Justice, an English professor and author of “How to Be a Dean,” offers insights on the controversy surrounding Rashad.
Does Phylicia Rashad have the credentials to be a dean?
Phylicia Rashad does not have the typical credentials of an academic dean. Most deans have served anywhere from 10 to 30 years as full-time faculty members. They also tend to have served as chair of their department or as an associate dean first.
But Rashad has a wealth of relevant professional experience, which can be as important as academic credentials for a school of fine arts.
The job description for her current role as dean calls for 15 years of progressively responsible experience in management as well as “political adeptness” and “good judgement.” It also calls for “excellent oral and communication skills,” the ability to “relate well to the college’s diverse constituencies,” and the “inclination to be a visible spokesperson for the college.”
It’s hard to square that with the controversy in which she finds herself enveloped as dean of Howard’s recently re-established College of Fine Arts. The college is to be named after Chadwick Boseman, the late “Black Panther” star who is also an alumnus of the school.
Does your book cover anything close to this controversy?
Since deans represent the academic aspirations – and integrity – of their faculty and students, they need to speak up on matters of grave importance to the colleges they oversee. Typically, when deans themselves create controversies, particularly those associated with race, gender, sexuality or religion, they resign or are fired.
Do deans have to play by a different set of social media rules?
Absolutely. Howard released a statement after Rashad’s supportive tweet of Cosby saying that “personal positions of University leadership do not reflect Howard University’s policies.” In my experience, that is a highly unusual statement and indicates deference to Rashad that might not be shown to other high-level administrators by their employers. Research has shown that college presidents use social media to bolster their institutions but are afraid of making mistakes.
Most deans and other university administrators that I follow have bland social media accounts. Their postings are mostly filled with praise for their institutions and self-praise for the great job they do with students, faculty and the community.
How does Title IX come into play here?
Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination in American higher education. This includes sexual harassment and assault. Most universities, including Howard, employ Title IX administrators who advise campus leadership and conduct investigations on campus. Until 2020, federal law required leaders to be “mandatory reporters” who must pass along any information about possible incidents of harassment. Howard’s policy includes deans in the category of “responsible employees,” who are “expected” to report incidents to the Title IX office. Many of these incidents at universities relate to sexual matters among faculty and students, often with complicated power dynamics. As a “responsible employee,” and as leader of the School of Fine Arts, Rashad practically and symbolically represents the university’s compliance with Title IX. To her critics, her support of Cosby calls into question her ability to carry out that role.
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What factors will affect Rashad’s fate?
As my book describes, her role as dean will involve hiring faculty, attracting students and working with the community. This includes raising funds to support the work of her school and the university at large. Prior to the Cosby controversy, Rashad may have been well-positioned to do these things based on her experiences and stature. But amid calls for her ouster, it remains to be seen whether the strengths she brings to the position will outweigh this controversy.