The divided chairman

Chairman Patrick O’Connor defends Bill Cosby against recent allegations of sexual assault, but for the sake of the university and its students, he shouldn’t.

Chairman Patrick O’Connor is at risk of putting himself and Temple in the aftermath of a conflict of interest by representing Bill Cosby, Temple’s most prominent alumnus, in Andrea Constand’s civil suit against him – even if he doesn’t get caught in university bylaws.

These bylaws state an employee may have a conflict of interest if “independent judgment is or might appear to be impaired by an existing or potential financial interest.”

For the record: Constand, the former director of operations for Temple’s women’s basketball team, accused Cosby of molesting her in January 2004 at the comedian’s mansion in Cheltenham, which he bought off Fitz Eugene Dixon, a former chairman of Temple’s Board of Trustees. There wasn’t enough evidence in the case to bring any criminal charges against Cosby, but since then, about 40 women have come forward to publicly accuse America’s dad of sexual assault, with allegations dating back to the 1960s.

He has never been charged with a crime for any of the allegations.

In recent weeks, the civil case between Constand and Cosby has consisted of attorneys filing motion after motion supporting or lambasting the potential full release of a deposition Cosby gave in 2005, in which he admitted to giving Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with. After the Associated Press sued, judge Eduardo C. Robreno released part of the deposition. The New York Times later found the whole document online, but it has since been taken down. We don’t have it, unfortunately.

Though the case wrapped up in 2006, when O’Connor was a trustee but not the Chairman, he’s been filing motions in court since the release of the deposition. He’s accused Constand, now a massage therapist in Toronto, of violating a confidentiality agreement from the case’s settlement.

It’s unclear whether Cosby has paid O’Connor for his services. We haven’t been able to get the Chairman on the phone.

But it seems like a conflict of interest to us that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the most powerful man at the university, who hired President Theobald, can see to a top donor’s legal matters. We know Cosby put Temple on the map, that people from California know about our school from watching The Cosby Show.

Still, how can we expect a man who sits on the board for five institutions to have Temple’s best interests at heart when his reputation in an internationally known case is at stake?

What about victims of sexual assault at our university? Chairman O’Connor represents the 30,000 students at Temple. How would someone who has been sexually assaulted feel knowing that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees is risking a conflict of interest to defend a famous alumnus accused of the act by more than 40 women?

A statement released last Tuesday evening said trustees are subject to a policy of the Board that requires disclosure when a possible conflict of interest is involved. O’Connor’s actions were “disclosed and vetted in accordance with the Board policy,” the statement said – whether everyone on the Board agrees or not. After all, O’Connor is who all the trustees answer to, so who would speak up?

O’Connor told the Inquirer July 21 that he has “every right to make a living” as a lawyer. He does. That story also quoted several faculty – including Art Hochner, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals – who were puzzled that the Chairman of the Board of Trustees could represent a trustee. We are too.

The line between professional freedom and controversial representation is blurred when we’re talking about Bill Cosby and a former employee of the very university he serves.

We’re not saying O’Connor hasn’t done Temple some good. With him as chairman, Temple’s kept tuition for undergraduates fairly stagnant, expanded its footprint with Visualize Temple and boosted the value of a degree, despite a lack of alumni support.

But it’s one thing for one of North Philly’s beloved African American leaders and one of Temple’s most noticeable alumni to be surrounded by such controversy – it’s another for the Chairman of the Board of Trustees to defend him, nonetheless after Cosby purportedly resigned from the Board to save the school from bad publicity.

Even Temple Student Government was prepared to express concerns about Cosby’s spot on the board, but he resigned before the session took place.

More damage is being done to Temple’s image than Chairman O’Connor may think. There is too much at stake.

Legally, we know the Chairman of the board can do this. But for the sake of Temple’s reputation and its students, he shouldn’t.

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