Now, Rashad, 72, said she looks forward to returning to the Northwest Washington school that shaped her theatrical skills while she also studied courses such as psychology, French history and Greek theater.
“I would like to see the work that was established during my time blossom again with a new thrust,” Rashad said in a recent telephone interview.
“I would like to see a program contemporized without losing knowledge. I would like to see faculty empowered to create and produce and design robust systems and a robust program. I would like to see students engaged in the disciplines of fine arts as they participate and engage in the university at large. I would like to see us graduate artists who are scholars as well,” she said. “And I would love to see us be a premiere program at the university. I would like to see the College of Fine Arts not only reestablished, but see it exulted.”
Rashad’s hiring also marks the return of Howard’s College of Fine Arts as an independent school within the university. In 1998, as part of a cost-cutting move by previous administrators, the university merged the College of Fine Arts within its College of Arts and Sciences. The absorption angered many of the school’s performing and visual art students, faculty and alumni, including Rashad.
“The discipline and study of fine arts are not understood. They are undervalued. And that happens so much around the world. People imagine musicians, designers and actors just wake up and do what we do. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” she said. “The discipline of fine arts was like training for the military.”
Howard had 307 students enrolled in its fine arts program this spring, according to the university. Alumni of the fine arts program include actors Taraji P. Henson and the late Chadwick Boseman, as well as singers Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway and Richard Smallwood.
Rashad agreed to a three-year contract and plans to move to the District while also commuting between her current home in New York as well as Los Angeles for theatrical and TV work. “I will be a working artist,” she said.
Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick said Rashad will focus primarily on four areas: teaching, modernizing the school’s curriculum, expanding enrollment among fine arts majors and designing a more modern, fine arts building.
“She was the best candidate,” Frederick said. “One of the things I was interested in was potentially having someone who was a practitioner in the field of fine arts. I think it’s important for us to have people who are ready and able to stand up and guide the young people who are going to go into that field.”
Rashad’s family has a long, generational tie to Howard. Her sister Debbie Allen, a multi-award winning dancer, choreographer, actor and director and a 2021 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, also graduated from Howard a year after her. Their father, Andrew Arthur Allen, graduated from Howard’s dental school in 1945.
Rashad has previously worked as a guest lecturer, adjunct professor and master-class instructor at several colleges, including Howard. She also served on Howard’s Board of Trustees from 1996 through 1999 and then again from 2013 to 2016.
As a winner of multiple performing arts awards including the Tony and Drama Desk for her theater work, as well as multiple Emmy nominations, Rashad becomes a rare selection as a dean at the university.
While she is the recipient of 13 honorary doctorate degrees from such schools as Howard, Carnegie Mellon, Brown and Spelman College, Rashad becomes one of only a handful of Howard deans who did not graduate from college with an advanced degree.
Frederick said Rashad’s vast experience in the entertainment industry equated to advanced degrees usually required for a dean position.
“One of the things we have to look at as an academic institution is where you have practitioners that have appropriate experience, it has to be considered,” he said. “Her experience in fine arts is extremely important.”
A committee made up of fine arts students and faculty conducted a nationwide search for the position. The university narrowed the candidates down to three finalists, including Rashad. Frederick declined to identify the other two.