Phylicia Rashad, best known to audiences as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” has been named dean of Howard University’s newly reestablished college of fine arts.
Howard University conducted a nationwide search before appointing Rashad, an alumna of the school. She will begin her new role on July 1 and will report to Provost Anthony K. Wutoh.
“It is an honor to welcome one of Howard’s acclaimed daughters back home to Alma Mater,” Wutoh said in a statement. “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.”
In an interview with Variety, Rashad says she was honored and surprised by her appointment.
“I never saw myself as a dean,” she says with a laugh. “But then, I’ve never thought of myself as many things that I’ve been. “It’s a privilege to be a part of re-establishing the College of Fine Arts, to engage with the administration, the faculty, the students, the alumni, as well as artists around the country. It’s exciting to think about building towards a future with a College of Fine Arts and Howard University.”
The celebrated actor is no stranger to facilitating higher education. She has previously served as a guest lecturer and adjunct faculty member at Howard, counting her “This Is Us” co-star Susan Kelechi-Watson and the late Chadwick Boseman among her students.
“I started teaching at the invitation of Al Freeman Jr., who was a former chair of the department of theater. He was a friend and we had also worked together in soap opera, and he was from the state of Texas as well,” she recalls. “At the time that I was teaching this masterclass at Howard, I was taping ‘Cosby’ in New York. I would fly down every Friday after tape day to conduct what was supposed to be an hour-long class, which ended up sometimes being three hours because students wouldn’t leave.”
Ultimately, Rashad says her students taught her more than she did for them.
“I marveled at not only their talent — because that would not be questioned, as they were accepted to Howard, and not at their intelligence — but I marveled at their fearlessness,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In a touching gesture, some of the students Rashad taught vouched for her to take over as the new dean, she reveals. “I was asked not to discuss this, but somehow some former students were aware of the fact that I was in process of being interviewed and they quietly voiced their support.”
Looking back at her long history with Howard (her father and sister Debbie Allen also graduated from the university), Rashad also marvels at the full-circle nature of her appointment, quickly reminded of her first days on the campus in Washington D.C.
“There was a level of excitement. [But] there was also unknowing, because when you arrive on campus, there is so much you don’t know,” she says. “I didn’t visit Howard University’s campus before applying and then enrolling. I got on the plane and went, that was it. These college visits, when I was going to school, that wasn’t really happening a lot.”
Today, Rashad says she’s feeling a bit of the same mixture of excitement, wonder and anxiety that she experienced when she first left Houston for Howard. “I’m not arriving for the first time and yet it feels like I am, because I’m arriving in a new way,” she says. “But it isn’t really about me at all. It’s about students, the faculty, the university and how our curriculum, program, students and faculty will be supported.”
Over her decades-long career, Rashad has garnered extensive screen and stage credits that have earned her Tony Awards and Emmy nominations. She’s recently appeared on the TV shows “This Is Us,” “David Makes Man” and “Empire,” as well as in Pixar’s “Soul” and Netflix’s musical “Jingle Jangle.” Rashad earned her fifth Emmy nomination for her work on “This Is Us” in 2020 and won her fourth NAACP Image Award for “Jingle Jangle” in March.
Though Rashad has accepted a new position, that doesn’t mean she’s done acting just yet. “It is understood that I’m not a retired person,” she explains, when asked how the new role will affect her on-screen career. “It is understood that there were projects in the pipeline before this process began that I am committed to.”
Among Rashad’s upcoming roles is “Creed III,” where she’s set to reprise her role as Mary Anne, the adoptive mother of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan, who will also direct the third installment of the boxing film).
An influential voice in the theater world, she’s performed in acclaimed shows like “A Raisin in the Sun” (for which she won both a Tony and Drama Desk award, as well as an NAACP Image Award for the 2008 TV movie), “August Osage County” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” She made her directorial debut at the Seattle Repertory Theater with August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean,” and later followed it up with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Our Lady of 121st Street” at the Signature Theatre, “The Roommate” at Steppenwolf Theatre and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
She has taught students at New York University, Vassar College, Carnegie Mellon and Juilliard, among others. She also presides over a number of boards, including Brainerd Institute Heritage and DADA (the Debbie Allen Dance Academy). Since 2017, Rashad has been the brand ambassador of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick said there is “no individual better suited to take on this role than Ms. Phylicia Rashad.”
“As we reintroduce our campus community and the world at large to Howard’s College of Fine Arts, the dean will play an instrumental role in ensuring an auspicious beginning for this reestablished institution,” Frederick said. “Given Ms. Rashad’s reputation as well as her capabilities and impressive list of accomplishments, she will undoubtedly empower the college to transcend even our incredibly high expectations. Under her leadership, Howard will continue to inspire and cultivate the artists and leaders who will shape our niche and national cultures for generations to come.”
This makes us want to go back to school!