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Students call for Board of Trustees chair to step down

A student organization spoke out against the dedication of the newly renovated Founder’s Garden.

The Founder’s Garden at Liacouras and Polett walks was officially dedicated to O’Connor Plaza on Sept. 14 after Board of Trustee Chairman Patrick O’Connor. In response, the student organization Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance called for O’Connor’s name to be removed and for him to step down from his role as chairman of the Board on Saturday.

FMLA cited O’Connor’s relationship with Bill Cosby as grounds for its statement — specifically the fact that O’Connor defended Cosby in 2005 when former university employee Andrea Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby for sexual assault.

“This action shows a lack of respect and disregard Temple has for survivors of sexual assault, and we find it counterproductive that this was unveiled during the newly implemented Sexual Assault Prevention Week,” the statement read.

This is not the first time a student or university organization has criticized O’Connor for defending Cosby against a former university employee.

O’Connor Plaza, which was formally dedicated to O’Connor and his wife Marie, includes a plaque that praises their leadership and for providing “life-changing opportunities for [Temple’s] students and others.”

The Board approved $2.9 million for landscaping improvements to the Founder’s Garden at a meeting in March. According to the university’s campus operations site, the update cost $3.5 million. A university spokesman said O’Connor’s seven-figure donation and a gift from another trustee supplemented a “large part” of the renovations, which are part of the university’s Verdant Temple plan.

THE UNIVERSITY’S RESPONSE

“I have been at Temple for more than 40 years; I can say without reservation that few persons have done as much for Temple University as Patrick J. O’Connor and his wife, Marie O’Connor,” President Richard Englert wrote in a statement to The Temple News. “Their commitment to the Temple mission and to student welfare is legendary.”

It is unknown how much O’Connor has donated to the university since he joined the Board in 1971 because the university does not release how much individual donors have contributed to the university, a Temple spokesperson said.

“I have known and worked side-by-side with Trustee O’Connor for many years, and I know first-hand his staunch commitment to social justice and serving the needs of the most vulnerable persons in society,” Englert added.

The statement does not directly mention O’Connor’s connections to Cosby. Cosby fell from his status as a beloved comedian and prized Temple alumnus after more than 50 women accused him of sexual assault. The university has yet to formally distance itself from Cosby after dozens of women have come forward accusing him of sexual assault.

O’CONNOR’S CONNECTION TO COSBY

In July 2015, a Pennsylvania judge released Cosby’s deposition from 2005 in which he admitted to giving a woman quaaludes — a drug that acts as a sedative — before having sex with her. O’Connor was in the room when Cosby said this deposition.

Students, faculty and media debated whether it was ethical for one trustee to defend another against accusations of sexual misconduct from an employee. The university released a statement that “O’Connor’s representation of Mr. Cosby was disclosed and vetted in accordance with Board policy” at the time.

O’Connor and Cosby served on the Board at the same time from 2001 to 2015. They also served two years together from 1982 to 1984.

The Board’s Policies and Procedures Manual only outlines conflicts of interest when an action is being made on behalf of the university — meaning although each party in the 2005 lawsuit was heavily associated with Temple, it technically wasn’t a university matter. It is still unclear whether Cosby paid O’Connor for his legal services in 2006. A university spokesman said Temple does not know this information.

Several university leaders at the time, including former Board Chairman Daniell Polett and former President Neil Theobald, defended O’Connor’s representation of Cosby.

STUDENTS AND FACULTY REACT

FMLA’s Public Relations Chair Kayla Boone said the statement was meant to show the organization’s solidarity with survivors of sexual assault.

“We take it seriously as they take it seriously,” Boone said. “I can’t speak for survivors of sexual assault, but I can imagine experiencing that through other people’s’ perspectives. It could feel like they’re not valued, like their voices aren’t heard.”

Boone said FMLA received positive feedback about the statement from not just members, but also students and other organizations, which she declined to name.

On social media, several organizations at Temple showed support for FMLA’s position.

Both the Socialist Students of Temple University and Temple Young Democratic Socialists of America shared the statement on Facebook, stating their support.

“Temple Student Government plans to represent student voices by raising these concerns to University administrators,” Student Body President Tyrell Mann-Barnes wrote in a statement to The Temple News. “In the meantime, join us as we consistently combat sexual violence on campus through collaborating, programming, and intentional involvement.”

TAUP President Steve Newman supported FMLA in a written statement to The Temple News:

“TAUP shares our students’ concerns about Chairman O’Connor’s prior legal representation of Mr. Cosby. The facts are clear: A former member of the Board was accused of rape by a Temple employee. Everybody deserves legal representation, and we understand that the Board looked into the matter and found there was no conflict of interest. We disagree; we believe it was a conflict of interest for then-Trustee O’Connor to represent Mr. Cosby. … This has damaged and will continue to damage the reputation of the university we all love and cause great pain to all those in the Temple community and beyond who have suffered from sexual assault.”

This is not the first time TAUP criticized O’Connor and Cosby’s relationship.

In 2015, then-TAUP President Art Hochner told the Inquirer that O’Connor should have stepped down in 2005 or not represented Cosby.

Boone said FMLA plans to release information later on Tuesday with the organization’s planned next steps.

“We just plan to unite everyone who feels the same way and take it from there, taking different experiences, ideas and opinions, all that together, we’ll plan the next steps,” she said.

Julie Christie

can be reached at julie.christie@temple.edu
Or you can follow Julie on Twitter @ChristieJules
Follow The Temple News @TheTempleNews

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