President Neil Theobald stuck to his promise that there would be no surprises in his inaugural address.
Much of what the 10th president laid out on Friday in what, in effect, is his vision for the university, centered on the core principles he has reiterated at every opportunity since he was named president 14 months ago: affordability, research and – most recently – Temple’s role as Philadelphia’s public university.
Throughout his 33-minute address, Theobald continually reflected on the legacy of Temple’s founder and first president, Russell Conwell. He spoke of the history of the university’s founding and the mission of Temple to create opportunities for working-class people in Philadelphia.
“Conwell’s great experiment – at its core, an experiment in democracy – can succeed only if Temple University remains the place where the nation’s middle class has access to a quality, affordable education,” Theobald said.
Much of what followed tried to answer the question of how Temple can continue the Conwell legacy.
Theobald laid out six commitments to the university: focusing on students and their financial needs, working for faculty, engaging in the city, enhancing research, preserving a diverse student population and advancing entrepreneurship throughout the university.
“Temple should educate innovators across the university so that our future alumni remain flexible and productive in a fast-paced, rapidly changing world,” Theobald said. “I believe the success of our entrepreneurial alumni will have an impact on their lives and on their towns and schools, their neighborhoods and families. The entrepreneurial spirit of our alumni will, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, ‘advance the happiness of mankind.’”
While he offered few specifics in his speech, his six commitments – as he put it in a follow up email – are what the university seeks to address, rather than the avenues to achieve those ends.
Theobald’s address did focus on the paramount question Temple is facing at the moment: How can the university maintain the Conwell legacy, while continuing to strengthen its national profile and grow its physical footprint in North Philadelphia?
“Here on the urban frontier, we must reinvigorate the Conwell legacy in order to create success in our students, our city, our commonwealth and our nation,” he said prior to addressing his commitments to the university.
The fundamental challenge – and near contradiction – of this statement is what will define Theobald’s tenure as president.
Theobald expressed the university’s obligation to the Conwell legacy through his emphasis on affordability, diversity and Temple’s responsibility to the city.
The affordability aspect is something that is a principal facet of Theobald’s tenure thus far.
“Simply put, the most important problem facing higher education in America today is the level and distribution of student loan debt,” he said. “If we don’t immediately attack debt levels, they will seriously limit the capacity of the next generation to establish its independence.
“If we are to remain a university that reaches out to the middle class, the poor, the immigrant populations, we must remain affordable, and we must do all we can to help students manage their debt,” Theobald added.
Throughout the past year, the university has introduced financial literacy courses, new student scholarships and a soon-to-be-announced affordability pact, which Theobald alluded to in his speech. These initiatives show the administration’s commitment to keeping costs down, which keeps the university accessible for students in the city.
In defining Temple as Philadelphia’s public university, he incorporated research and helping the city find solutions to its fiscal crisis.
“In tomorrow’s urbanized, diverse, resource-challenged environment, Temple’s status as Philadelphia’s public university requires it to play an even more important role in the city’s economy through its research,” Theobald said. “As a national research university, Temple must build its capacity to conduct pioneering research.”
While these all relate back to Temple’s core mission, the university has also seen a period of enormous growth on Main Campus. Students are moving further into the community, rumors have swirled of an on-campus football stadium and the newly-minted Morgan Hall stands as a modern castle in North Philadelphia.
Though Morgan Hall is a landmark on North Broad Street, one of its goals is to bring students in from the community, which keeps those students from getting to know residents as they would if they lived beside them.
In contrast to the Conwell legacy, marketing for the university has reached far beyond the region and construction has become a constant on Main Campus.
Patrick O’Connor, chairman of the Board of Trustees, described Theobald at the investiture ceremony as, “clearly the right man, at the right place and at the right time for this great university.”
If Theobald can successfully balance Temple’s growth with the Conwell legacy over the course of his presidency, then O’Connor’s assessment will be accurate.
Sean Carlin can be reached at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @SeanCarlin84.