Has Temple University Lost Its Way?
Even as its national profile grows, the city’s largest university finds itself stumbling from one leadership crisis to the next. Which raises the question: Does Temple know what it wants to be?
The soft-spoken president of Temple University, Dick Englert, talks to Patrick O’Connor, the school’s chairman of the board of trustees, every day. The two men are opposites, in temperament and style: Englert is warm and pleasant, an endless cheerleader for the school; O’Connor is gruff and demanding. These conversations aren’t about what Englert is planning to do, how he envisions moving the university forward. Englert will tell you that it doesn’t work that way at Temple: “The days of the lone president telling the board what to do, and this is where we’re going to take the institution, are gone.” But Dick Englert, who’s spent more than 40 years at Temple in 17 different roles, believes in doing what is best for the university — and just what that is comes through every day as he talks with Patrick O’Connor.
O’Connor is co-founder of Cozen O’Connor, the Philly-based law firm that has morphed into a big business, with 700 lawyers in 26 cities across two continents. He’s a trial attorney whose hair-trigger temper and take-no-prisoners approach were on full courtroom display for a long time in this city. No longer trying cases, O’Connor remains at Cozen as a rainmaker, but he’s maintained his approach, and in his daily conversations with Englert, his vision for Temple University has become clear. O’Connor, who joined Temple’s board decades ago and has been board chair since 2009, is a man who’s used to being listened to, and at age 75, he’s far and away the most powerful person at Temple, with a certain legacy. In mid-October, Temple announced that O’Connor will retire from the chairmanship next July, to be succeeded in a smooth transition by another longtime board member, Mitchell Morgan, 64, the successful real estate developer.
O’Connor’s headstrong approach hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. He grew up in Wilkes-Barre, one of 10 kids. His father, a lawyer, died of cancer when Patrick was 15. His mother held the family together, and her toughness and strength made her a heroic figure in O’Connor’s eyes. There was little money, but all 10 kids would go to college. Patrick got a scholarship to King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, a door opened for a kid who desperately needed it, and therein lies his fundamental connection to Temple and view of what it must be. “For working-class kids, kids who need help,” he says one day in September in a conference room at Temple. “They don’t look like me, now, but that is who we’re committed to.”
There is a growing uneasiness at Temple, however. The school is at a certain crossroads in terms of what kind of university it’s becoming. It’s gotten big, with more than 40,000 students on Broad Street in North Philly and at other campuses in the state as well as in Rome and Tokyo. It ranks among the nation’s leaders in professional education — in law, medicine, podiatry, pharmacy and more. It’s become a top-ranked research institution. All of which is a long way from being a commuter school, which it essentially was for a century after being founded in a church in 1884. The rise of Temple in the last three decades has been impressive.
But earlier this year, something ugly emerged. News broke that for several years, Temple’s Fox School of Business had been supplying U.S. News & World Report false information about several programs, including its online MBA program, which the magazine had ranked number one in the country four years in a row. This is a big deal on two fronts. First, those rankings are highly sought after by business schools, since they lead to top students flocking to get in and star research professors wanting to join the faculty. And second, Temple has come to prize Fox as a sort of crown jewel; it’s doing so well that tuition for undergrads there is 20 percent higher than at much of the rest of the university. A “Be like Fox” entrepreneurial mind-set seemed to infuse the campus on North Broad. So the online cheating has been a particularly painful gut-punch.
Temple’s administration would like the Fox scandal to be seen as a one-off, the maneuverings of Moshe Porat, the school’s hyper-aggressive dean, who was quickly removed (though he remains on the faculty). When news of the cheating hit this past summer, however, the effect was really the opposite — it seemed the capper in a series of events at Temple that have gone public in strange, awkward, and increasingly embarrassing ways and made the school appear almost rudderless.
One controversy involved Patrick O’Connor directly. He was Bill Cosby’s personal lawyer while Cosby — a fellow board member and for a long time Temple’s leading ambassador — was being unmasked as a sexual predator. This double role for O’Connor — simultaneously representing Cosby and Temple — still rankles many in the faculty, because, they say, it’s an obvious and egregious conflict of interest and demonstrates O’Connor’s arrogance in spades. One liberal-arts professor utters a four-letter word when O’Connor’s name comes up one day in her office, so frustrated at the mention of the Cosby episode that she leans forward in her office chair to touch her forehead to her knees.
Then there was Temple president Neil Theobald’s forced resignation in the summer of 2016 after serving for just four years. Theobald had fired provost Hai-Lung Dai over a $22 million cost overrun in international scholarships and cited an allegation of sexual harassment against Dai by a Temple employee — a charge Dai vehemently denied. The board ousted Theobald for not getting its permission to jettison the provost and later made Dai, who was cleared of harassment charges in a university investigation, VP for international affairs. Many faculty still look back at the Theobald-Dai imbroglio and wonder: What was that all about?
Another controversy: the proposed new football stadium. At the moment, a contingent of loud, outraged Temple neighbors are deeply exercised about the school’s push to build a 35,000-seat stadium on the northwest side of campus, which, they’re sure, will be one more huge step in ruining the neighborhood. It’s really an ongoing battle that goes back half a century, a fight that the current administration — meaning especially Patrick O’Connor and Dick Englert, who are pushing hard for the project — either doesn’t understand or dismisses. A poll taken a year ago showed that nearly three-quarters of faculty members are also against the stadium, and many speak of it the way they talk of the Cosby/O’Connor relationship. “O’Connor views the board as his own private playground,” Eli Goldblatt, an English professor, says; other faculty members concur. That is, O’Connor believes he is above reproach and that the vision for Temple’s future belongs to whatever the old white guys on the board, a firm majority that includes Mitchell Morgan, the next board chair, want to railroad through.
There’s yet another issue, one these accusations of board arrogance and a bigger-is-better mentality all point to: Is Temple turning its back on its original mission, established by founder Russell Conwell, a minister and lawyer — that it is a school, most fundamentally, for working-class city kids?
That’s still the vision articulated by O’Connor and Englert, but there are plenty of faculty who believe the school’s purpose has gotten muddled by ambition and success, and that the guiding force of Conwell, who had a missionary-like zeal for unearthing and nurturing talent in his own backyard, has been lost. “Temple always resisted what is most lovely and defining about it,” says Eli Goldblatt. “That it’s in the city. That it’s in North Philadelphia.”
Perhaps, in a way, the recent crises — capped by the Fox scandal — are a good thing. Because if Temple really is becoming something else, and for somebody else, at least now that’s coming out in the open.
There is something fishy in Temple Town, as Peter Liacouras, the school’s president from 1982 to 2000, wanted to call the campus. It has to do with power.
The modern Temple got rolling under Liacouras. When he became president, after serving as dean of the law school, the economy was bad, enrollment was weak, state appropriations were down, and the health system was a drain on resources (a problem that’s still a major issue decades later). Soon after Liacouras was hired, Fitz Dixon, who’d owned the 76ers, was forced out as chair of the board; Liacouras wanted — and got — real estate developer Dick Fox as chairman. According to Bob Reinstein, who would become dean of the law school during Liacouras’s tenure as president, Fox and a handful of members close to him ran the board, and Liacouras cultivated them. On big issues, if he and Fox agreed and there wasn’t strong opposition from the other insiders, that would be it, almost a rubber stamp of what Liacouras wanted. It gave him, and Dick Fox, enormous power.
Liacouras got to work. Temple, in 1982, was still a commuter school, and it wasn’t going anywhere as a commuter school. About a thousand students lived on campus. Through the ’80s, dorms and other facilities were built, and enrollment shot up. The student body became regional and then national. Programs expanded and drew stronger faculty. Temple was on its way to becoming a different university — what’s known as an R-1, a strong research school.
Today, Temple is a school of some intellectual heft and accomplishment, and Dick Englert sees it as his job to tell the world how wonderful it is. This has become an easy story to tell.
“I’ve been here 42 years,” Englert says, “and Temple is as hot and moving forward as I’ve ever seen it. We just had our first Rhodes scholar. And our first Goldwater scholar — a young man in physics. And our first-ever faculty member getting an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship. Eleven Fulbright scholars — which puts us in the elite of double-digit Fulbright scholars. Two Guggenheims, one in dance, one in religion. This is all within the past 12 months. It is an amazing story of what our faculty and students are doing. This is what Temple’s about.
“And the R-1 status is nice — we like to brag about the fact that there are only five R-1 institutions in Pennsylvania, and we’re one,” Englert continues. “But it’s the kind of research — it’s a caring research.” Sara Goldrick-Rab, for example, the Carnegie Fellow, researches how students navigate the finances of higher education. “And among the things she found,” Englert says, “is how food scarcity and even housing scarcity — this is nationwide — is prevalent in kids going to college. She was the main impetus for us to set up a food pantry for our students, because of the empirical data.”
Peter Liacouras, as he was building Temple into something much bigger in the ’80s, was committed to city kids, too, and to diversity. When he was dean of the law school, Liacouras started one of the first affirmative-action programs in the country, recruiting African-American students from the South. Liacouras wanted it both ways: bigger and better, and true to the Conwellian mission.
To get his way, Liacouras wasn’t above picking fights. He fought constantly with the faculty — there were two strikes during his tenure — and some professors who go back to his reign don’t remember him fondly.
Successive presidents continued the building, which by the time Liacouras left in 2000 had slowed; the scale of contemporary Temple is really his doing. But the presidents who followed weren’t nearly so strong. David Adamany, who served from 2000 to 2006, was obsessed with faculty and curriculum — sort of his own provost. (Some of the faculty give him high marks.) “This was the beginning of the shift of power between the administration and the board,” Bob Reinstein, the former law school dean, says. Lawyer Howard Gittis was the new board head. Gittis decided that Adamany would micromanage, which he wanted to do, but Gittis, as chairman of the board, would make the big decisions. Adamany was the sort of president who had to approve everything, like Jimmy Carter signing off on the White House tennis courts.
A high-level administrator watching all this unfold had a concern dating back to Liacouras and Dick Fox assuming control: “The concentration of power in a small number of people can be positive, but also very dangerous, depending on who their successors are.”
But now the board/president power dynamic was in place. The next two board chairs after Howard Gittis, auto dealer Daniel Polett and O’Connor, kept a tight rein on their power as Temple got bigger and richer.
After Adamany retired from Temple in 2006, the next two presidents, Ann Weaver Hart and Neil Theobald, were weak and, ultimately, disasters. Hart, fresh off running the University of New Hampshire, never understood Temple’s city mission. “Hart had no clue,” O’Connor says. And then Theobald was forced out after just four years.
When he interviewed for the president’s job in 2012, Theobald had a story O’Connor loved. He was a poor kid from Peoria, his father a factory worker, and he was transformed by education — a scholarship to Trinity College. “I could relate to it,” O’Connor says. But Theobald, who’d been CFO at Indiana University, had no idea how to relate to a board; O’Connor says he put policy issues in place without board approval and hid, for a year, that $22 million scholarship-cost overrun while Hai-Lung Dai was provost. (Theobald declined to comment for this story.) To hear O’Connor tell it, Theobald’s firing of Dai in June 2016 was like a death wish: “We had a pleasant conversation the night before, with the general counsel on board, to make Dai VP of international affairs — we were going to move him out as provost. Then Theobald fired him the next day without my knowledge or permission.” That was the end of Theobald.
“He was the second failed search,” O’Connor admits. “Finding a university president who gets Temple is difficult.” Dick Englert, who is nothing if not calm and reassuring — and certain to keep the board in the loop — was installed.
So Peter Liacouras and Dick Fox had, however inadvertently, set up a potentially dangerous combination for the head of the board: the intoxication of running a highly successful university, and — especially if the president was weak — the freedom to do it with pretty much unchecked power.
Which is also why Patrick O’Connor could be Bill Cosby’s personal lawyer while both were on the board of trustees. Handling the civil suit Andrea Constand brought against Cosby in 2005 was a seemingly obvious conflict of interest. But nobody said boo to Patrick O’Connor.
Though maybe the larger problem — perhaps even worse than Temple never investigating a former employee’s allegation against a board member, or O’Connor’s conflict — was O’Connor’s refusal to acknowledge how it looked. How could he simultaneously represent Cosby and run the university that Cosby so often was the face of as the noise of Cosby’s behavior with women slowly grew louder?
“You’ve got to judge me as a lawyer,” O’Connor argues, meaning only as a lawyer. “I don’t apologize. I’ve been accused of something I did as a lawyer. Go to good lawyers and ask if it’s a violation, and I’ll stand by that judgment.”
Doesn’t he think the issue is broader than that?
“It is now. It wasn’t then.”
But didn’t it have every potential to become a huge problem for Cosby dating back to 2005, when 13 women submitted testimony in support of Andrea Constand that Cosby had drugged and molested them, too?
“That’s absolutely correct,” O’Connor says. “A huge problem for Cosby, not a huge problem for Temple, ever. Never. That’s what I don’t get. I’m not dense, but maybe I’m dense. If I thought, ethics aside, it would have been a problem for Temple, I wouldn’t have represented him.”
It’s taken for granted that Fox School dean Moshe Porat’s aggressive leadership led to false student information being given to U.S. News & World Report, which allowed Temple to get those number one rankings four years running for its online MBA program. But it’s also the case that deans at Temple have an inordinate amount of power. As one business professor says, “They run their own fiefdoms.” And that made a Moshe Porat inevitable at some point. Because the bottom line on Porat is how he was allowed to carry on without oversight.
Deans became particularly powerful under Neil Theobald. The one lasting impact Theobald had on Temple was an approach called Responsibility Centered Management, or RCM. It allowed deans to effectively run their own businesses.
“I was opposed to RCM,” Fox professor Jon Scott says. “I didn’t see where there was any effective monitoring of the deans who were running these multimillion-dollar businesses. To me, I didn’t see the accountability that you would have to a board, and it was an unmitigated disaster.”
To hear Fox professors talk, the business school operated in its own netherworld, with Porat setting the tone and direction. They describe a man who’s genial but could also be egotistical. And they say he talked constantly about his department’s position in various rankings. It’s not unusual, of course, for deans to push hard for their faculty to publish, but Porat made it a prime focus. Professors publishing in top journals was one way to raise the department’s ranking in Financial Times, for example, and Porat installed a reward system: Such publication could be worth a bonus of $8,000 — or much more.
“This is your tone at the top,” says Jon Scott. “If the rankings were all we celebrated and that’s all you heard about, it’s hard not to incorporate that into your behavior.” Porat even disbanded an oversight committee that could have been a check against submitting false data for rankings.
Porat’s attorney denies that the dean was unduly focused on the rankings, saying instead he paid “appropriate” attention to them given their importance in enrollment decisions. Though one employee told Jones Day, the law firm Temple hired to investigate the Fox scandal, that Porat had directly ordered him to submit false data to U.S. News, Porat denied the charge, and Jones Day’s report reached no conclusion about it. Several Porat supporters at Fox also defend him. “It’s correct that he created an environment where it was clear what he wanted,” says Sam Hodge, a legal studies professor who worked with Porat for many years. “But I do not believe that the dean personally told anyone to falsify the data.”
Rankings aside, Porat also had a reputation for being vindictive. For example, when he didn’t like the recommendations one faculty member made through a Fox committee studying promotion criteria, the professor soon found, he says, that his teaching load went up, and he was no longer teaching Executive MBA, the cream of the crop. (Through his lawyer, Porat denies that he was ever vindictive and says he had no role in assigning teaching loads to faculty.)
Ron Anderson, who became interim dean at Fox when Porat was demoted, doesn’t flinch when he’s asked about his predecessor’s style — whether there was a sense that you crossed him at your peril. “Honestly, yes,” Anderson says. “I mean, he was a very powerful dean.”
“If I ever knew about retribution,” Patrick O’Connor says, “or Dick Englert knew, he would have been removed in a heartbeat.”
It’s pretty clear now, in light of the findings of Jones Day, how unlikely it was that O’Connor would ever learn what was happening there. Some administrators at Fox knew that the numbers reported to U.S. News were inaccurate, but they didn’t blow the whistle.
“It’s painful,” O’Connor says of the scandal. “It’s painful. We were on a ride.”
O’Connor was enamored of Porat. When asked whether Theobald’s RCM system gave Porat more power, he smiles: “Moshe is Moshe. Moshe always had power and control, before and after RCM came in.”
Then there’s the football stadium.
Ruth Birchett, a North Philly neighbor of Temple University, remembers back to 1959 when she’s asked why the neighborhood seems so opposed to a football stadium. She was coming home to Norris Street from school one day, and from a block away she could hear the neighbors outside, shouting, mad. They were carrying brooms, sweeping, yelling about the city forcing them out. Some edict had come down — it was the era of urban renewal — and Birchett remembers watching the angry men and women as she cowered between her daddy’s legs. They weren’t moving off the block! She also remembers how Temple bulldozed Monument Cemetery, replacing it with an athletic field, and how some gravestones ended up dumped under the Betsy Ross Bridge. Birchett still lives near Norris. “Here I am in the next century,” she says, “fighting Temple encroachment and the city. Temple has displaced the living and the dead.” This is, you might say, personal. A stadium is more than a monolith of a structure that will bring in trash and parking problems; it’s them overwhelming us.
For the faculty, too, it’s a metaphor for a different kind of school. “We do not have cornfields around us,” English professor Eli Goldblatt says one day over coffee. “We do not have a desert around us. We are not going to be a big football power, period. How many people are going to come to a game at Temple? They’re proposing 35,000 or 40,000.” Then Goldblatt really warms to the point: “At Penn State, nothing shit-else to do. Iowa, nothing else to do. People don’t go to Temple to watch football games. Are you fucking kidding me? You’re not going to build a football program at Temple. This is a misunderstanding about who we are, about ourselves!”
Patrick O’Connor says he wants Temple football to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, home to the likes of Clemson, Pitt, Duke and Florida State, and that a football stadium will take the program to that level. Both he and Dick Englert believe that football games played on campus will bring back alumni, who will then be more likely to give money to the school. And they believe a stadium means jobs for the community. These views aren’t wrong, necessarily, but they seem to fire the stadium debate into “football school” vs. “city school.” Underlying the clash about the financials of football and whether Temple students will ever care about the game is the sense that the administration is force-feeding what it wants to the rest of the community — the board of trustees as the personal playground of O’Connor and others on the board. The administration has done little to woo the faculty, and communication is even worse when it comes to the neighborhood, where leaders like Baptist minister William Moore say they were told Temple was building a stadium — or read about it in the paper — as opposed to the school coming to them to seek input when matters were still in their infancy. Either the administration has a profound lack of savviness on the issue, or it thinks it can simply railroad the other stakeholders.
In March, Moore helped convene a meeting at George Washington Carver High School on Norris Street to discuss the stadium. Englert and O’Connor were invited; 500 people showed up on a rainy night, but the Temple chairs stayed empty. “They just opted not to come and never made a response to me, as the convener,” Moore says. A few days later, however, Temple called its own meeting, at Mitten Hall on campus, where Englert would present the university’s side of the proposed stadium, to rise between Broad and 16th streets just off of Norris.
But Englert didn’t get far; he was shouted down by protesters. Moore and other leaders went up to the podium, and Moore asked the crowd to be respectful, to let Englert speak.
As Englert started to address the Mitten Hall audience a second time, Ruth Birchett, a member of Stadium Stompers, a neighborhood group determined to stop the plan, came in. She had been outside with a bullhorn, protesting, and had missed Moore’s calming plea to the audience to let the president give his side. Birchett entered just as Englert was saying, “Temple has to do a better job of establishing trust.”
“You lie!” she yelled. “You lie! You lie!”
With that, others joined in, and Englert was hooted off the stage, for good this time.
Really, the stadium controversy is a symptom of a deeper concern: just where Temple is headed and who it might be leaving behind. Alex Epstein came to North Philly from New York in 2009 to attend Temple, attracted to the way the university promoted itself as a campus that’s highly integrated with the city. Which is what he found, to an extent. But he says he also found this: “I remember as a freshman I was told over and over and over never to leave the campus. Never to go west of 16th, never to go east of 12th or north of Diamond, because the neighborhoods around the campus were dangerous and violent and dirty and filled with bad people. And I heard that over and over and over. The same language was used by the students who led orientation, by a lot of my professors, by peers. And as I started to ask questions, I realized that almost none of those people had actually ever been off campus themselves, because they’d been told the same things.”
Which gave Epstein a sort of calling. He now co-runs Urban Creators, which has turned a two-acre vacant lot near campus into a farm; he’s also got a bird’s-eye view of the town/gown struggle and the too-often-ham-handed way Temple has dealt with the community.
One example he points to is the university’s proposed new Alpha Center on Diamond Street, focused on early childhood education. From Temple’s standpoint, it’s a way of saying that the university is willing to invest in the neighborhood and provide local kids with the kinds of resources that might help them.
But Epstein says the initiative taps another long-standing misreading of the neighborhood — what many residents seem to see as Temple’s paternalistic attitude that the school knows just what is best for them. “For Temple to assume the responsibility of being the primary early childhood educator in this community,” Epstein says, “would displace and put out of business all of the locally run, underfunded early childhood centers and youth programs that already exist in this neighborhood — there are hundreds of people in this community working at them. All of which would be put out of business if the Alpha Center goes up.”
What Temple should do instead, Epstein says, is spend time in the neighborhood, find out what the needs are, and help build up what’s already there.
All this is enough to make it clear that Temple has a big challenge in engaging the community, given a history — which is really the city’s history — of running roughshod over it. At the same time, when Patrick O’Connor is asked, for example, about gentrification in the neighborhood, about longtime residents being forced out to make way for Temple student housing, he shrugs: “What can I do about that? It’s developers.” Developers, that is, with a 10-year city tax abatement, catering to students Temple has brought to North Philly.
There is one more concern, among some on the faculty, particularly, which is that Temple is no longer doing enough for students who come there needing support, academically and otherwise. Faculty point to the closing of the Conwell Center and the end three years ago of the Summer Bridge Program; both helped new students transition to college. “The problem with being the first in your family to go,” says a longtime Fox School professor, “is that your first failure can send you on a downward spiral — those students need mentoring and counseling. Temple makes some noise about that but does nothing that I’ve seen that’s systemic.” Which goes back, once again, to confusion about just what sort of school Temple has become and how true to its original mission it stays. “It’s a matter of where you put your resources,” says Barbara Ferman, a political science professor. “We’re trying to get more honors kids — but do you support kids who need it more, or kids who can really fly? I’d like to see that more balanced. It’s easy for some kids to get lost here, to fall through the cracks.”
Temple University is at something of a turning point. That’s what the embarrassing problems that have popped up in the past few years — Bill Cosby hanging around far too long, Neil Theobald’s sudden ouster, the town/gown fight over a new stadium, the Fox School scandal — tell us. All of those crises offer a peek, in one way or another, into how Temple is being led. That makes it easy — perhaps too easy, now that the end of his tenure as board chair is in sight — to make Patrick O’Connor the fall guy in this, to conclude that he’s taken Temple in the wrong direction, to see him as a 75-year-old white man of considerable success who just doesn’t get it. Doesn’t get, that is, how others view Temple. Doesn’t see where Temple should be going, or how it should be fulfilling its mission.
But consider: O’Connor first joined the board in 1971, at 28 — the youngest trustee in the board’s history, appointed by Martin Murray, the president pro tempore of the state Senate. O’Connor laughs that he didn’t even know where Temple was, that “Murray was trying to make me a player in Philadelphia.” He left the board in 1984, but board chair Howard Gittis brought him back in 2001, and O’Connor became chairman in 2009. That’s 30 years that O’Connor has served Temple University.
Which is a hell of a lot of board meetings to sit through. Can we give him that, at least? Or even this:
“Temple takes care of kids,” O’Connor says when he burrows down into what he thinks the school’s mission really is. “We’re a family that takes care of kids that are like young Patrick O’Connors. They don’t look like me. Some have no parents; some have single parents. They come here — some become transformed. This is America. If I could take America, with all its problems, and bring them to Temple, you’d have no headlines. And what we do is educate these kids. We go to those commencements — and I could get emotional — and I look at those parents, first-generation kids getting a degree … It’s why I’m here.”
Patrick O’Connor’s passion is clear, but much has changed over his time at Temple. When O’Connor’s retirement was announced in October, his loyal sidekick, Dick Englert, promised that new board chair Mitchell Morgan will continue O’Connor’s legacy of promoting growth and national prominence. But that raises the fundamental question the university is now facing: Does that vision for Temple really hold the key to success for everyone?
Published as “Can Temple Find Its Way?” in the November 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.