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“It’s A Privilege To Serve”: Dean Phylicia Rashad Speaks On Her Role As Dean

Phylicia Rashad poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Phylicia Rashad.

Behind the front doors of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, one of the first things students may see is a showcase picturing Fine Arts alumni including actress, singer, director and two-time Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad. In her second year as the Dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, on any given day, students can find Rashad just around the corner, in the dean’s office.

Rashad, 74, was announced as the new Dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts in May of 2021, and according to the Washington Post, she signed a three-year contract with the University. 

“It’s a privilege to serve,” she said of her role as the dean. “Service is…building a collective constituency…honoring the needs of faculty, honoring the aspirations of students is service, honoring the discipline is service for me. That’s what I want to do here.”

“But then,” Rashad said, “There are those other things that a Dean is responsible for. It has been likened to being a CEO of a company… It’s that complex and that involved and those are the responsibilities that one holds. There are more administrative tasks than you can imagine.”

Rashad spoke of onboarding and improving faculty as well as helping students with scheduling classes as some of the responsibilities incumbent upon her position as Dean. Sometimes, she explained, Rashad’s interactions with students can be personally gratifying. 

“I like that a lot, when students come in, sometimes in tears, but you see them a few weeks later and they’re smiling,”Rashad said.  “Sometimes people just need to be listened to and you give that,”

 Rashad began her first year as dean while balancing her professional acting career. She explained how, after receiving her appointment last year, she had already made prior commitments to professional engagements which, in turn, sporadically kept her away from campus. 

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With the support of Howard and her castmates, and making sure she carried her computer everywhere she went, Rashad was able to carry out her role as dean in the midst of rehearsing and performing for the play “Skeleton Crew” on Broadway, a role that led to winning her second Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Play on June 12, during the annual Tony Awards ceremony. The play ran from Dec. 27, 2021, to Feb. 20, 2022.

As a practicing actress, there were some that wondered how Rashad would manage balancing both careers. For Rashad, however, the decision to navigate having a career in academia while performing as an actress simply meant that she would have to find ways to remain present, connected and communicative.

“Yes, there are some things I would miss on campus when I was away,” she said. “There are meetings I won’t always make, if I’m in rehearsals I can’t attend meetings, but then when I go into performance and my days are free, then I’m in meetings all the time.” 

While some students felt as if they hardly saw Rashad on campus last school year, this school year, prospective and current students can take advantage of Rashad’s “open-door policy” and seek anything from a listening ear to guidance. “This is the part I love the most,” she said. 

Parris Brown, a sophomore theater technology major, playwriting minor from Fort Lauderdale, is one of the many students who have been advised by Rashad. 

“I was rejected from the acting program last semester and she was one of my biggest advocates for trying again,” Brown said. 

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Brown shared that after having a discussion with Rashad, the dean advised her to return to writing. After bringing Rashad some of her work, Brown says that Rashad “really liked it” and helped her get into the College of Fine Arts. “I probably wouldn’t be in COFA without her,” Brown said.

Julius Shanks is a sophomore acting major from Birmingham, Alabama and currently serves as Mr. Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, along with being a student ambassador for the Administration Building. Shanks says that since Rashad’s return to Howard, he believes that she has begun to rebrand the college. “She’s creating a sense of community and collaboration that we’re doing,” he said. Shanks also added that Rashad is “just like your grandmother.”

“You know she’s gonna push you with that tough love, even from a distance,” he said. “Whether she’s in the classroom or not, whether students have a personal relationship with her or not, from one way or another you’re gonna get that tough love…” 

More than an advisor to students, Rashad appreciates being able to support them. In her office, right across from her desk, hangs a “remarkable” painting that helps her through everyday, she said. 

The painting, which is called “By Faith,” was created by Eric January, a senior painting major in the College of Fine Arts. “She has really poured into me and supported my creativity…” January said. “I will be forever grateful to Ms. Rashad for not only recognizing my potential, but believing in me.”

By Faith,” a painting by Eric January.  Photo courtesy of Eric January.

It is interactions like these that Rashad hopes to cultivate during her time at Howard. She explained how she viewed her purpose as the dean. “I’d like to honor those who came before me as we prepare the way for those who will follow…”

Janet L. Johnson, an administration aid in the College of Fine Arts, has been working at Howard for 37 years. Since Rashad’s appointment as dean, Johnson believes that Rashad has brought a new life into the college. 

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“We’ve had previous deans but none of them were professional actresses,” she said. “Most of them were former chairs of the department and they took it up to a higher standard, hopefully [Dean Rashad] will do the same.” Johnson also believes that Rashad’s career as an actress will positively impact the students. 

Rashad’s dedication to the arts and the legacy of the College of Fine Arts stems from her own experience at Howard. Rashad attended Howard from 1966 to 1970. During her college years, she participated in various shows, studied many different fields such as philosophy, literature, and French. She also joined Alpha Chapter Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated in 1968.

Rashad’s father, Andrew Allen, graduated from Howard’s College of Dentistry in 1945. “He spoke about Howard University with such reverence and love for this institution,… It meant the world to him,” Rashad said.

Recalling a moment from her childhood, she illustrates the allure that led her to Howard. Her father was in an armistice program during World War II. Those who continued in the program and passed their studies, were able to serve in the United States Dental Corp. If they failed, however, they would have to go to boot camp. The men her father met in his program became his brothers.  

“On the day of my father’s funeral, those men came and sat in the den of my father’s home. And I looked at them and you could see the bond was unbreakable and they didn’t talk much about it. It was just there. This is what Howard University is,” Rashad said. It is this sentiment that she explains to a prospective student who has come to see the University. “People come, people come and they graduate or we move on but we never leave,” she added.

Rashad graduated Howard with the distinction magna cum laude in 1970 and went on to have an extensive acting career. She is widely known for her portrayal of the character Clair Huxtable in “The Cosby Show,” from 1984 to 1992, starring in a total of 192 episodes spanning over eight seasons, and her Tony Award winning performance as Lena Younger in 2004’s “Raisin in the Sun.”

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Copy edited by Alana Matthew 

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