After he was given a chance as a student with mediocre test scores to attend the Beasley School of Law by famed president and then-Dean Peter Liacouras, Trustee Nelson Diaz said he uses his example to try to keep the board he serves looking past the numbers.
Diaz arrived at Temple’s law school in 1969. After growing up in public housing in Harlem, N.Y., he spent his graduate years sharing a house with a couple in Camden, N.J.
Diaz’s had a career as a lawyer and general counsel for the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton Administration before spending nearly two decades on Temple’s Board of Trustees.
Diaz said at the time he was studying law, the dean flunked two-thirds of the students each year. Diaz bargained for the school to work better for lower-income students for whom Temple was their only choice.
“That’s why we became state-related in the first place,” Diaz said. “Temple isn’t Harvard. It’s for working-class kids who scrapped hard to overcome past issues, whether they be poverty, race or sexual issues.”
Diaz said he lobbies constantly to keep Temple from diverging from its mission to provide affordable education to those with fewer opportunities.
“No other institution has the impact on this city,” Diaz said.
Diaz highlighted his past as making him a unique figure on the board, and one who is prone to have differing views in a body known for its solidarity. When it comes to the board’s activities, Diaz said it is “politics with a capital ‘p.’”
“I’m one of the few assertive guys on the board,” Diaz said. “Sometimes they rift with me because I push different agendas and make people feel uncomfortable. I’m always the activist on the board.”
One of the disagreements Diaz said he often has with other board members is Temple’s high standards of test scores for admission, which he said leads to missed opportunities to educate hardworking and smart students. Diaz said he believes Temple should give more chances to students who did not score highly on tests, as President Liacouras did for him.
“They’re all hung up on numbers instead of people,” Diaz said, adding that attitude runs contrary to the university’s founding mission.
“Russell Conwell wanted to find diamonds in the rough of North Philadelphia,” Diaz said. “We are delegating them to a community college. That’s where we miss the opportunity to get someone early on.”
“They’ll go back and empower their communities,” Diaz said. “They’ll say ‘Temple gave me a chance.’”
Temple’s most recent incoming class of freshmen have the highest average SAT scores and high school GPAs in recent years, according to statistics published at the university earlier this year.
Though he recognized Temple’s impact, Diaz said he is concerned with Philadelphia’s ability to keep graduates within the city after they leave school to find employment. Diaz said jobs in Philadelphia have not caught up with the high standards of college graduates.
“Because you are educated and qualified, we lose you,” Diaz said.
According to a 2013 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 157,000 Philadelphia residents commute to work outside of the city in surrounding suburbs.
Since his admission to the law school, Diaz said he has never left Temple. He said he will continue to speak for the community and for students, even if it means being a thorn in the side of his fellow trustees.
Joe Gilbride can be reached at email@example.com.