Though she was considering retiring, JoAnne Epps stepped up as Temple’s acting president on April 11 until a permanent hire was made. She took over at a time when the university and its administration faced increasing public scrutiny for its handling of safety concerns and a labor strike.
Epps served in the role for just more than five months before suddenly passing away on Sept. 19. Since her death, students, faculty and staff have agreed that Epps positively impacted morale at the university following the university’s turmoil.
“I think that we have come a long way from some of the hard parts of last spring but I think there’s more to do there, and it is one of my additional priorities to continue to make people remember what’s so great about this place and make it the place they want to stay,” Epps said in a one-on-one interview with The Temple News on Aug. 31.
At her introductory press conference on April 11, Epps said she would prioritize listening and engaging with students, faculty, staff, administrators and the surrounding community to focus on two central university issues: safety and enrollment. Answers have varied in terms of what people think are most important between the two issues.
“One of the themes that I hear is for Temple to continue to realize its importance to this city and its region, so when we think about the challenges that face the city, some of those are things that we can share in the solutions,” Epps said.
Part of the increased sense of optimism could be attributed to Epps’ messaging to the community, said Scott Gratson, director of communication studies at the Klein College of Media and Communication.
After Epps stepped into the role, there was a much greater presence from the president’s office on campus. Messages coming from Epps were also more frequent, and had a more optimistic tone, something Gratson didn’t notice at all seven months ago, he said.
“She gets this place.” Gratson said. “She understands it. She’s been here for some time and has moved through the ranks and she understands the ethos of Temple University. I don’t think President Wingard ever got it together, ever understood truly what we are.”
Epps stepped into the role shortly after former President Jason Wingard resigned on March 28, amid pressure regarding the fatal shooting of Sgt. Christopher Fitzgerald, a 42-day TUGSA strike and a no-confidence vote including Wingard and several other senior university officials.
As the university faced these issues, The Temple News surveyed slightly more than 1,000 students about their thoughts on Wingard and the direction of the university. Roughly 92 percent of students generally disapproved of Wingard’s performance, and 75 percent of students identified safety as the biggest issue at Temple.
From Jan. 1, 2020 to Feb. 18, 2023, 129 people were shot, 14 of those fatally, within a quarter-mile of Temple’s Main Campus, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
AJ Monahan, a junior supply chain management major, is feeling comfortable going into a new academic year, especially after Temple was ranked 89th in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” ranking of National Universities on Sept. 18, its highest ranking to date.
“I don’t know how they got that with the whole president thing going on, but that’s good to hear,” Monahan said.
The moment that struck Monahan the most last year was the death of Fitzgerald and the vigil that took place for the fallen officer. Fitzgerald was the first Temple Police officer to die in the line of duty.
While Monahan feels better starting a new year, he thinks the university can still improve in many areas. One thing he frequently heard about is Temple’s decline in enrollment, but he is confident Temple is trying to get better and combat it, especially in the wake of Epps’ tenure.
Temple is projected to face continued declines in enrollment. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, the university planned for an enrollment decline of 1,500 students in its proposed budget. On May 1, Jose Aviles began as vice provost for enrollment management.
“I think that we have come a long way from some of the hard parts of last spring, but I think there’s more to do there,” Epps said. “And it is one of my additional priorities to continue to make people remember what’s so great about this place and make it the place they want to stay.”
In the nearly six months that have passed since The Temple News’ poll, the university has worked to address a number of students’ most important issues. On March 13, the TUGSA strike came to an end after the union ratified an agreement with the university for an initial raise increase and expansions to healthcare and paid leave.
Temple has also made a number of safety improvements, partly as a result of two reports advising Temple on violence reduction and safety efforts. The first, Temple’s Violence Reduction Task Force Report, included recommendations from a team of students, community members, faculty, staff and parents.
The task force provided recommendations on communication, community engagement and an evaluation of funding to address hiring and other safety efforts.
The university has also implemented recommendations from an audit of Campus Safety Services’ operations and procedures conducted by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who partnered with 21CP Solutions, an organization that advises law enforcement agencies.
The 131-page audit contained 68 recommendations in areas like guidance on crime and physical safety, support for and organization of the Temple University Police Department and TUPD’s engagement with other entities.
Following the release of the audit, Vice President for Public Safety Jennifer Griffin created a strategic plan that includes five pillars: personnel, training and professional development, equipment and technology, strategy and collaboration and communication. On Sept. 6, the Department of Public Safety created a dashboard to track the recommendations as they are implemented.
As the university begins the early stages of the search for the next permanent president, students hope for someone who shares the positive traits Epps exhibited during her tenure.
“[I’m looking for] someone who’s more active in the community,” said Hope Bassett, a sophomore psychology major. “Someone who really actually genuinely cares about the students and our well-being and our academic success.”
Gratson believes communicating with faculty, something that Epps did frequently, is also an essential responsibility of the new president.
“I hope that when candidates come in, we have a chance to talk on behalf of the faculty because I think that’s essential,” Gratson said. “We’re the ones that talk to the students wherever we go daily, and I think having those voices at the table is incredibly essential.”
Epps, a Cheltenham, Pennsylvania native who served in various roles at Temple for nearly 40 years, spent as much time out of the office as possible during her tenure, talking to university stakeholders about what the university should prioritize.
As the semester began and Epps found herself walking around campus, there were many students and faculty who walked up and introduced themselves. She found an increased sense of happiness and excitement in these conversations, Epps said.
“That gives me a real basis for optimism, and then sort of the other end of the spectrum, I think about our faculty and all that they bring to this institution, just in terms of the breadth of what they do, the commitment they have to our students,” Epps said. “So I feel like that didn’t get lost. It might have taken a hit, but it didn’t get lost. And so that’s why I’m optimistic.”