If you believe that Howard University is a lightning rod for every good and pleasant thing that should happen to historically Black colleges and universities at large, then you hate the news that alumna Phylicia Rashad, an acclaimed actress, will return to her alma mater to serve as dean of the institution’s reestablished college of fine arts.
If you are a faculty member who believes that a dean’s role requires terminal credentialing, stripes earned through published research, and toil among the teaching and training ranks, then you hate that most of her work in academia is outside of this realm.
If you are someone who thinks that the hire is more about flash than substance for the nation’s flagship HBCU, then you hate that the school that snatches all the headlines has pulled more ink in newspapers nationwide for an appointment that won’t last for many years, and won’t necessarily move the meter for HU as a repository for talent in theater and screen acting, or other career pathways in the arts.
If you fall into any of these categories, you might just be a hater; not for a lack of legitimate perspective on the matter, but because her hiring has every chance to be successful for Rashad and for Howard for the same reasons that sketch out the prospects for its failure.
Higher education, historically Black or otherwise, is best served with a careful blend of practitioner and researcher training; that is to say that it is no longer sufficient for students paying premium costs to learn how to do a job armed solely with theoretical exposure in the field. It is important for Howard’s School of Divinity to be led by Yolanda Pierce, one who is both a skilled academician and preacher, to lend her expertise in curriculum development, tenure and promotion, fundraising, and student development.
Rashad has taught, consulted, and supported theater arts at many stops for years before coming to Howard. What she knows about auditioning, navigating the industry, dealing with Hollywood’s growing reconciliation of Black artists and storytelling should be reflected across the spectrum of the college’s academic offerings.
The faculty at Howard also deserves more credit for the work they’ve done for years in training experts in theater and creative arts. We deserved to know that Kemp Powers was a Howard alum before ‘Soul’ and ‘One Night in Miami.’ We deserve to know the people who helped to make him who he is today, and who is currently enrolled in Howard that will soon follow in his footsteps.
The attention that will be tethered to Rashad’s appointment is a tidal wave that will bring more attention to more faculty and student talent at one of the nations’ great hubs for training Black creative talent. For years, Alabama State University pipelined dozens of award-winning actors from Montgomery, AL to Broadway, thanks to former fine arts dean Tonea Stewart, also a working actress who refined the college’s teaching and training culture to make it more conducive to productions and studios seeking talent from non-traditional settings.
Even if we get out of the weeds of academic infrastructure, it stands to reason that Howard fine arts will raise more money, get more coverage, and send out more artists to professional careers because Rashad has returned — a move she was under no obligation to make. She isn’t more famous because she’s coming to lead an academic college at Howard; whether she worked another day in her life for Howard or any other institution, Vanessa still got fussed out for having big fun with the Wretched in Baltimore.
A flashy appointment doesn’t mean that it’s all-flash; there is substance behind the timing and tenor of a realigned school making an esteemed alumna the face of its operation while allowing its brain trust to build and to work with the benefits her celebrity may provide.
Hate it or love it, Dean Rashad makes Howard a little brighter in the big lights of competitive higher education, and the sector is better for it.