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President addresses issues facing Temple

The Temple News sits down with the university’s new president.

Since Neil Theobald was named Temple’s 10th president in August, the university community has been waiting to see what changes the former Indiana University senior vice president and chief financial officer would bring to North Broad Street. Last week, The Temple News sat down with President Theobald to gauge his thoughts on a number of issues facing Temple.

The Temple News: You’ve had a few months between being named president and actually leaving Indiana. Can you take us through a typical day of prepping for Temple, but still focusing on your job as a senior vice president and CFO?

Neil Theobald: It ended up being a seven-day-a-week job. Generally, I would do my IU job until about 6 p.m. I’d have two separate email accounts, an IU email and the Temple email, and about 6 p.m., I would start on the Temple work and that would go until about 10 p.m. and did that pretty much around the clock. I wouldn’t want to do that as a regular job, but we had committed to my boss at IU that we’d get the budget completed, which is an every two year process at IU, and get my successor prepared.

TTN: On New Year’s Eve, right before you took over, you were at the men’s basketball game honoring the men’s basketball program on its 1800th win. Being out and about on campus, is that something that you plan on building and maintaining at Temple?

NT: Oh, absolutely. You’re not going to know what’s going on sitting in that office. It is so very easy to get isolated. One thing we’re going to do next fall, and I mean “we” because my wife is going to do it with me, is that we’re going to teach a class for incoming freshmen. Obviously part of it is…[giving] a decent class to a group of students, they will be the major reason for doing it because they’ll be the beneficiaries of the class. There’s also an interest I have in staying in touch with a group of students and not only them, but then through them, the things that they’re involved with just so I know what’s going on on campus beyond what comes into this office. Same thing with faculty, I’ve been to the faculty president’s house for dinner, plan on meeting with people and getting out to talk with individuals. Universities have to be – because they’re so complicated – bureaucratic because sitting in the president’s office, you can’t deal with every detail that’s going on. But if you allow that bureaucracy filter, you never really know what’s going on in all these places. So, you have to use the bureaucracy for the purpose for which it exists, but then you’ve got to go out on your own and just meet [people] personally, and interact with people, and talk with people and listen to what their concerns are.

TTN: Some presidents around national campuses normally bring a fair amount of change to their cabinet. So far, you haven’t. Can you take us through how you approached that when you became president?

NT: There’s a really good group of people here. I’ve known a number of my friends that have moved into presidencies across the country and there are campuses that are in major difficulty. When you’re in a situation of major difficulty, you have to make major changes. That’s not Temple University. This is a very strong university. The things that we need to work on – fundraising, marketing – those are things where the structure is in place, we just need to make them more of an emphasis and put more resources behind them. We’re not in the situation where we need to break everything down and start all over again. The core of this university is strong.

TTN: The only major change there’s been to any kind of position was that Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement David Unruh resigned. Can you talk about this change and your vision for institutional advancement? 

NT: He and I discussed it, there are things he’s interested in working on, I’ve spent a lot of time doing fundraising. We just want to do things in different ways and that happens when new leadership comes in. He’s out doing consulting across the country now and is very successful. So, it’s just a chance for him to do something different. We have a team in place. Tilghman Moyer is the interim, who’s very good. As things go on down the line, maybe we’ll search, maybe we won’t, I don’t know. We’re just going to see where we end up.

TTN: You’ve talked about fundraising a lot and certainly when it comes to curbing costs and cutting tuition, or keeping tuition level as Temple did last year, getting to know the legislature is important. You already talked about meeting with legislators. How often do you plan on going to Harrisburg and who have you met so far?

NT: I met with Senator [Dominic] Pileggi, the majority leader of the Senate. I met with Senator Shirley Kitchen, who is the local representative. I had breakfast with her and had wonderful discussions with both of them. I’m in Harrisburg Monday and Tuesday for the next six weeks. I meet with the governor [soon]. I’ve been meeting with local government officials as well, same kind of thing asking, “What is it we can do to benefit Philadelphia and the region?”

TTN: I’m sure you’re aware of the proposed changes to the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know Law. Can you talk about how these changes would impact Temple and your thoughts on those changes?

NT: I do not know how the past situation was. I come from a state that is right-to-know. So, I’ve worked under, with the exception of donor information and research, I worked in a state that had right-to-know. I’m not quite clear how that constrains things in Pennsylvania. I’ll have to find out.

TTN: A proposed change would make Temple have to disclose the same amount of information as a fully state funded school. Would you support that?

NT: I don’t know, I’m not ducking the question. I’ve worked in a situation where everything was right-to-know. It’s one of those things where unless you’ve experienced something, you don’t really know. Maybe there have been materials that have gone out at Indiana that have actually been damaging to the university, but they didn’t know it because they didn’t know any other way to do it. Ask me that question again in three months after I’ve seen how things work here and how they would change and then I might have a sense. Right now, it’s not something that is uppermost in my mind, that’s for sure. I could be educated and learn that I’m wrong.

TTN: You’ve talked in prior interviews and you’ve talked today about marketing the university more effectively. How do you plan to do that and how have you already started that?

NT: We are very, very leery of ever adding an administrative position because cost containment is also one of the real focuses. With the approval of the board, and I’ve talked with the faculty, we’re going to add a vice president for marketing. At least once a day, if not more than once a day, I will make a statement to someone about Temple University and their reply will be, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” There are so many great things that go on here.

We do not do nearly a good enough job of telling our story. If you’re going to recruit new students, recruit new faculty, they have to know what a wonderful place this is. It’s not bragging, it is letting people know the return they will receive by coming to school here, by being a faculty member here, by donating money here. This is a really important place and people need to know that.

TTN: Have you named the vice president for marketing?

NT: There’s a search going on right now. Ken Lawrence, who’s the vice president of [government, community and public affairs], is chairing it. I would estimate given how these things go, that one would be chosen in early April.

TTN: Issues with the neighborhood are nothing new and we had talked previously about the Community and Student Off-Campus Issues and Concerns Task Force. How do you plan on addressing the recommendations in that report?

NT: Kevin Clark, the one person I brought from Indiana, he’s my senior adviser, met with Vice President [Theresa] Powell and a number of people on her staff and there are a number of recommendations he’s going to take the lead on. There are specific agenda items that they are going to work on.

TTN: One of the attributes you bring from Indiana is an awareness and working knowledge of the decentralized budget model. Can you talk about how your working knowledge of it will aid Temple as it transitions to that model?

NT: In December, we had 10 people from Temple come to Bloomington and meet with deans, faculty members, staff members, we tried to get every perspective on how this works. It’s not that IU has all the answers, that’s not the point. That university has done this for 20 years and they’ve run into so many different circumstances. We had them up for two days to talk. I’ve been very closely involved with it for 15 years, so I think I know where the emphasis needs to be.

You have to have a model that’s predictable. The idea behind decentralizing budget, is that you want to have people make the most cost effective decision. In other words, “Where can I get the most outcome, for the least cost?” Well, the only way they can do that is if their action has a predictable outcome.

I’ve dealt with it as a department chair, as a faculty member, I’ve dealt with it at a school level, a campus level and university level. I think I have a pretty good understanding of it from all sides and I can talk to the individual faculty member about how it affects them in the classroom all the way up to the highest level.

TTN: What’s the biggest difference and difficulty so far transitioning from a campus like to Bloomington to Temple?

NT: Traffic. I go out and about a lot and I’m used to being in a small town where there is no traffic and to get from one side of the town to the other takes 10 minutes. Here, if you’re going to go, you have to plan to leave at a time. I have found people here more welcoming than I had ever imagined. Every group I interact with is interested in what we’re doing at Temple. Temple’s clearly very important to this community. People were nice to me in Indiana, but nothing like this. Here, I’ve found that people really want to be helpful, really want to be involved and it’s great.

TTN: Apart from tuition and funding, what are your key concerns and what do you have on the docket that you feel is urgent?

NT: Something that underlies a lot of this is that we’ve got to provide incentives for students to graduate on time. The whole affordability issue is important because people are borrowing money and taking on debt – that’s the real problem.

The key to limiting student debt is to graduate on time, if at all possible in four years. The biggest part of the money people borrow is for living expenses. So, one of the things I’ve been talking with the cabinet about is what we can do to remove any roadblocks that might exist for people to graduate on time. That’s the one real area of focus right now.

Sean Carlin can be reached at sean.carlin@temple.edu or on Twitter @SeanCarlin84.

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