Mentor, educator, friend: honoring JoAnne Epps

The Temple community reflects on the legacy of President Epps.

Epps at her introductory press conference in April. | ROBERT JOSEPH CRUZ / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Bill Clements, an attorney and a 2001 Beasley School of Law alumnus, took JoAnne Epps’ classes as a student. Twenty-two years later, Clements reflects on the loss of Epps, not just as an alumnus, but as a Temple parent.

“When I heard that she was appointed, I was ecstatic because I knew she was a professional who was going to care about the details and do her best to address what needed to be addressed,” Clements said. “It’s just, she gave off that aura of competence.”

On Sept. 19, Epps passed away after collapsing on stage during a university event. She was devoted to the Temple community and is remembered as a mentor and friend to many. Epps was also a distinguished legal scholar and educator who dedicated her life to the pursuit of justice, legal education and community service. 

Epps ensured there was a spot at the table for everyone, said Jennifer Ibrahim, dean of the College of Public Health. 

“I knew she was so busy, but she always made time and made you feel valued and heard regardless of students or staff,” Ibrahim said. “I saw her stop and talk to facilities folks the same way she would talk to an esteemed professor.”

Although Epps did not attend Temple, the university played a large role in her life. Her mother worked as a secretary for the university, and Epps’ first job as a teenager was working at the university bookstore. 

Epps, a Cheltenham, Pennsylvania native, was a 1973 graduate of Trinity College and a 1976 graduate of Yale Law School.

Epps was a student tour guide at Trinity. She was so personable in her role that she almost persuaded Karen Turner, a Temple journalism professor, to attend Trinity instead of Dartmouth. When Turner chose the latter, she wrote Epps a letter explaining her decision because they had bonded during the tour.

After Turner had forgotten about the visit to Trinity many years later, she ran into Epps at a Temple event and was reminded of the interaction. 

“I happened to be standing next to her, and she turned to me and she said, ‘You’re the student we lost to Dartmouth,’” Turner said. “And I looked at her and I was like ‘Oh my goodness, that’s incredible, she remembers!’”

Before becoming a Temple professor, Epps worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and deputy city attorney in Los Angeles. 

She was recognized as one of the 100 most influential Black lawyers in the country by Lawyers of Color Magazine on three occasions and won numerous prestigious awards from the American Bar Association, the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Philadelphia Bar Association. She was also on President Barack Obama’s 2009 shortlist for possible Supreme Court nominations, WHYY reported

Epps came back to Temple in 1985 as a professor at Beasley, where she started a prolific career in education. Whether it was sharing career-advancing opportunities or taking the time to get to know someone, she made everyone feel valued and important.

Epps was Beasley’s dean from 2008-16. During this time, Epps advocated for a responsive and innovative approach to legal education. She moved the school away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum and, instead, encouraged first-year experiential courses and nationally recognized clinical opportunities.

Epps was very successful in using the socratic method, a form of dialogue between individuals based on asking and answering questions, in her classes, Clements said. 

“She was by far, I thought, the most effective, she really got everyone involved and when someone threatened to veer, to derail the conversation off into something else, she was very good at bringing it back on topic and getting everyone into it and getting their say,” Clements said. 

Epps’ passion for teaching and the law extended globally. She taught advocacy skills and promoted the rule of law — meaning no one is above the law — in international settings, including the United Nations’ International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in Tanzania, China, Japan and Sudan, which worked to uphold criminal courts in unstable countries.

“She really invested in mentoring the next generation of lawyers,” said Rachel Rebouché, the dean of Beasley. “And I think the outpouring of love for her now is a testament to her mentorship and to how many lives that she touched throughout the legal profession.”

Her leadership earned her recognition as one of the 25 most influential people in legal education by National Jurist Magazine from 2013-16.

In 2016, Epps assumed the role of provost under former President Richard Englert. The pair worked closely together during Englert’s five-year tenure. Englert delivered a speech at the Sept. 20 vigil held in Epps’ memory.

“She was short of stature, but she had very broad shoulders, and an even bigger heart,” Englert said. “And it’s our job to stand on her shoulders and take her vision, her caring for and about Temple University to the next level.”

In August 2021, Epps was removed as provost and instead placed in a senior advisor position as a result of former President Jason Wingard’s reorganization of administration. 

Epps was unanimously voted acting president in April after Wingard’s resignation amid the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association strike and the fatal shooting of Sgt. Christopher Fitzgerald.

Prior to becoming interim president, Epps planned to retire, but took it upon herself to do what she felt was best for the university. Her appointment served as a source of hope for the Temple community.

“When JoAnne took over as president, there was just this exhalation on campus,” said Ken Kaiser, senior vice president and chief operating officer. “And just a sense of peace, quite honestly, it was almost like the sun was shining on the Temple ‘T’ for the first time in two years.”

Epps was Temple’s first Black female president, she broke glass ceilings and championed all aspects of her different careers, inspiring many to do the same.

“Being a Black woman leading in higher education is not easy, so the way that she led with such grace and such kindness, like I want to be that kind of leader,” said Monika Shealey, dean of the College of Education and Human Development.

Throughout her career, Epps remained involved in various organizations, including the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Judicial Independence Commission and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. 

Her mentorship continued steadily throughout her career. Shealey met with Epps during her first month at Temple. During their conversation, she expressed her desire for a mentor and Epps immediately offered to fill that role.

“She didn’t know me well, but clearly, from that gesture and what I’m hearing from others who’ve known her for years, they said that is who she is, always extending herself to anyone,” Shealey said.

In 2013, David Boardman was the Executive Editor of The Seattle Times and was offered a position at Temple as dean of Klein College of Media and Communication. Although Boardman loved the university, his wife wasn’t sold on moving. 

“[Then-Provost Hai-Lung Dai] took us out to dinner, and also invited JoAnne who was the dean of the law school, and by the end of that dinner, my wife was enthusiastic about moving to Philadelphia. JoAnne was just so delightful and charming,” said Boardman, dean of the Klein College. “She just really was the best ambassador for Temple University that you can imagine.”

Although Epps’ professional career was extraordinary, her personality, ability to be a mentor and outlook on life are what truly set her apart from others. Epps took the time to meet and learn about the people around her. 

“I think it’s important to understand that, as remarkable as she was, I would not say she was larger than life,” Boardman said. “I would say that she was very much of life and very accessible and lovable as a human being.”

Epps leaves behind L. Harrison Jay, her husband of 37 years, and an indelible mark on legal education, diversity, social justice and Temple. 

Epps’ funeral will be held at The Liacouras Center on Sept. 29, the university announced in a social media post Friday. There will be a public viewing for the community on Sept. 28 from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sept. 29 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., at which point the funeral service will begin.

Oliver Sabo contributed reporting.

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