• On construction
“Hopefully, I retire in 12 years. I wouldn’t doubt when I’m ready to retire [Temple] will be part of Center City as it slowly moves its way up Broad Street.”
• On Bill Cosby
“Going forward this is not a university issue. The individuals involved with the trustees is a board issue to address.”
• On the football stadium
“The question there is what’s best for Temple, what’s best for our student athletes, what’s best for the game-day experience here on campus. … It will be in the next year making a decision one way or the other.”
• On tuition and debt
“I’m actually less concerned about tuition than I am by debt.”
• On alumni engagement
“One of the most important things we have here is the people who have attended here. And it isn’t as though you have these 300,000 people who came here and didn’t care. … It’s just we have not done much with them, in terms of outreach.”
• On the papal visit
“Travel between Center City and campus might be difficult during that period.”
• On research
“You can’t do modern science without the science building we’ve got here. You can’t do it in Barton Hall.”
Neil Theobald was never looking for a presidency at a university. In fact, he said he had never even applied for such a job.
He heard about the opening for a presidency at a public university in Philadelphia through a friend. At the time, he lived with his wife Sheona Mackenzie and their three children in Indiana, where he was named senior vice president of Indiana University in 2007.
When he arrived in Philadelphia, he said, he believed Temple could be the place for him to try his hand at a presidency.
“It’s focused on middle-class, working-class, affordability—all the issues I spent my life thinking and worrying and working on,” Theobald told The Temple News last week. “It seemed like a great place to try a presidency. … And it seems like it’s gone OK.”
He said he comes out of a working-class, union household in Peoria, Illinois.
“It’s funny, my parents have never understood what I do for a living,” he said. “They would say, ‘You teach two classes a week? What do you do?’”
He started his career in finance for 14 years at the University of Washington and then at Indiana University for 20 years.
Now, he and his wife live in Center City and have adapted to Philly life—he even bikes to work.
Coming in to his fourth year, Theobald said the top issues he’s focused on are fundraising, alumni engagement and campus development. The Temple News interviewed the university’s 10th president last week to ask about goings-on at Temple and plans for the future.
Fighting student debt
Theobald previously served as CFO at Indiana University, and has talked to various media outlets—including NPR and the Chronicle of Higher Education—about rising tuition costs across universities and ways to combat student debt.
He told The Temple News that his “Fly in 4” plan is the main way the university is fighting those problems, by guaranteeing students the opportunity to graduate in four years.
“I’m actually less concerned about tuition than I am by debt,” he said. “Debt limits your options once you graduate. … If you take a look at differences across students and how much debt they take on, how long it takes to get their degree is the primary deterrent.”
Theobald said Temple tries to keep down the cost of year-to-year tuition by spending its money wisely, citing the decentralized budget the university adopted in 2013.
“When I was at Indiana, I got a list of 76 faculty members [Temple’s] deans wanted to hire,” he said. “How in the world would I know sitting in Bloomington, Indiana who you should hire in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania? … those at the school, they know who to hire, and will spend the money more wisely than somebody as far away as me.”
Connecting with alumni
Theobald acknowledges there’s more work to do to engage the roughly 300,000 living Temple alumni.
“One of the most important things we have here is the people who have attended here,” he said. “And it isn’t though you have these 300,000 people who came here and didn’t care, they really had a good experience here. … It’s just we have not done much with them, in terms of outreach.”
Theobald said one way the university is fighting that issue is through the newly created position of vice president of alumni relations, currently held by Ken Lawrence. Lawrence formerly served as vice president of government, community and public affairs.
Much of the responsibility in increasing alumni engagement falls on the university, Theobald said.
“If the university doesn’t make a very active attempt to keep you connected, you end up getting involved with your family, your work life, all of those things,” he said. “People are busy, so our role is, how can we enhance their worklife, and tell them about what’s going on here?”
An on-campus football stadium
Last Tuesday the university announced it would extend its agreement with the Eagles to allow the university’s football team to use Lincoln Financial Field in 2018 and 2019 for its six home games. The original agreement was set to expire in 2017.
University spokesman Ray Betzner said in an email that the new agreement gives Temple the “flexibility” to explore options in the future—including the possibility of building a stadium on campus.
“We are talking about and considering a football stadium,” Theobald said. “The question there is what’s best for Temple, what’s best for our student athletes, what’s best for the game-day experience here on campus. So we’re discussing it with the city … It will be in the next year making a decision one way or the other.”
An on-campus stadium, Theobald said, could increase alumni engagement and change the overall experience of students during their time at Temple.
“It’s going to be a major decision,” he said.
Theobald said the biggest change on campus for this coming academic year is construction.
New changes to campus include the demolition of Barton Hall, which Theobald said should be finished by the beginning of the next calendar year. A portion of Liacouras Walk near Alter Hall opened last week to pedestrian traffic.
Theobald said demolition of William Penn High School at Broad and Master streets—a facility that was bought for $15 million in June that will provide athletic facilities and a job training center—is also set to begin on time. Jim Creedon, senior vice president for construction, facilities and operations, told The Temple News in March that demolition would begin before Labor Day.
When asked about student housing, Theobald said to expect more development in the future, but it’s unclear whether the university or private developers would meet that demand.
Making Temple more of a residential community, as opposed to a commuter campus, is also a priority, however there are no plans to increase enrollment.
Lt. Dennis Gallagher of the 22nd District told The Temple News in May that with the addition of a football stadium on campus and more development, the Cecil B. Moore community could be transformed into “Center City North.”
Theobald said at the rate Center City is expanding, that shift may come sooner rather than later.
“Hopefully, I retire in 12 years,” Theobald said. “I wouldn’t doubt when I’m ready to retire this will be part of Center City as it slowly moves its way up Broad Street.”
Concerning Bill Cosby
In regard to the allegations surrounding alumnus and former trustee Bill Cosby, Theobald said that what has happened since Cosby left the Board of Trustees is not a university issue. Individuals involved with the Trustees is a board issue, he said.
“All of this happened before I came here, so I really don’t know much about it,” he said.
Theobald shifted the conversation to his Presidential Committee on Sexual Misconduct that recently released four major recommendations to combat sexual misconduct on campus.
“We take these issues extremely seriously here at the university and there is zero tolerance here for any type of inappropriate behavior at the university,” he said. “It’s something that is extremely important, but I just don’t know anything about the circumstances that happened before I came here.”
Temple will close Friday, Sept. 25 prior to Pope Francis’ visit. Theobald and his wife will stay on Main Campus that weekend and stay until Monday.
“Travel between Center City and campus might be difficult during that period,” Theobald said. “We’re doing a lot of activities here; the music school is taking over the Baptist Temple…we’re doing a barbecue at 4 o’clock Saturday. … We want to do this because we might be a bit penned in.”
What city officials are calling the “traffic box” has a boundary at Broad Street and Girard Avenue, and it’s likely that some papal pilgrims could park at Temple.
The university plans to open the Liacouras Center that weekend to accomodate pilgrims traveling down Broad Street.
Last year, the university opened the Science Education and Research Center to modernize science facilities and help growth of research at the school.
“You can’t do modern science without the science building we’ve got here,” Theobald said, gesturing toward the SERC. “You can’t do it in Barton Hall. It’s just not possible.”
Research became a third main stream of revenue for the school after tuition and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s appropriation.
Temple’s research profit was about $220 million last year and Theobald said the university projects to make about $250 million this year.
“The modern economy is driven by research,” Theobald said. “Fast economic development is in places that have universities providing the ‘technology transfer’ that creates businesses. We are very focused on medical research that can then be transferred into products.”