The national media frenzy that’s zeroed in on Montgomery County since early April is completely focused on what will happen to one man: Bill Cosby.
Is the once beloved TV family man and comedian guilty or not?
Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault. He was first tried last summer, but it ended with a hung jury and mistrial in June 2017. The retrial began earlier this month.
The decision of this retrial carries a lot of weight right now. With the strength of the #MeToo movement, people are demanding that powerful men be held accountable for the assaults they’re accused of. Cosby could be one of the first, and one of the biggest, to criminally fall.
But at Temple, Cosby’s retrial hasn’t just captivated interest because he’s a notable alumnus and former trustee. It’s because this university is entrenched in the retrial.
Of course, Cosby was a trustee for decades, but Andrea Constand, who is the central accuser in this retrial, was also a Temple employee when the alleged assault happened.
Additionally, Patrick O’Connor, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, was named as a potential witness because of his involvement in a settlement between Cosby and Constand in 2005, when both O’Connor and Cosby were trustees. O’Connor didn’t testify during the retrial.
Temple connections have appeared on the witness stand at the retrial, too — Marguerite Jackson, a Boyer College of Music and Dance academic adviser, said Constand told her in 2004 that she could accuse a high-profile man of sexual assault for money, and Dr. Barbara Ziv, a professor in the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, testified as an expert on the behavior of survivors of sexual assault.
And finally, just like the icing on the cake, Cosby bought the house where he allegedly assaulted Constand from a university trustee.
With so many connections drawing Temple into this retrial, it’s obvious that the school will have to reckon with the outcome.
Several other institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, have rescinded honorary degrees previously awarded to Cosby — showing their acknowledgment of the accusations.
If Cosby is found guilty, Temple will be the school that didn’t distance itself from a convicted assaulter. And O’Connor will be the trustee who stood by Cosby the whole time.
Our university will have an administration that let two officials work together to pacify an employee whom one of them had assaulted.
Temple’s Beasley School of Law said none of its representatives could comment, but Chris MacDonald from the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University said the Board never technically faced a conflict of interest when O’Connor represented Cosby.
“It depends on the role of the Board of Trustees,” said MacDonald, who is the director of two centers at Ryerson University that focus on business ethics. “Conflict happens when you’ve been entrusted with something but have an outside interest.”
Because the Board doesn’t have direct power over the athletic department, where Constand was the former director of operations for women’s basketball at the time of the alleged assault, neither Cosby nor O’Connor could have taken direct action against Constand as trustees, MacDonald said. And he’s right — the separation isn’t strong enough to create a clearly defined conflict of interest.
But there’s a reason some people think it’s a conflict of interest: Trustees are the most powerful people at Temple, and students and employees need to trust they will make the best decisions for the university. By working together to evade criminal charges, Cosby and O’Connor violated that responsibility and trust.
Influential forces at Temple agree. Steve Newman, the president of Temple Association of University Professionals, wrote in a statement to The Temple News in September 2017:
“We believe it was a conflict of interest for then-Trustee O’Connor to represent Mr. Cosby. … This has damaged and will continue to damage the reputation of the university we all love and cause great pain to all those in the Temple community and beyond who have suffered from sexual assault.”
Cosby and O’Connor’s relationship calls into question how the university will act when there is a clear conflict of interest: Can employees trust the university to make the right decision if they come forward about abuse from university leaders? Can students?
But if Cosby is found not guilty, the implications are worse. It would imply that Temple is in the clear, and can keep working from the top down to prevent employees from voicing serious concerns.
It means that the Board won’t be pressured to revisit its policies on accountability.
People need to understand what’s at stake for students, faculty and alumni in this retrial — and it’s not losing a famous face.
“These are situations that put institutions to the test,” MacDonald said. “High-up administrators have the opportunity to put their values on display. And people will watch and judge that.”
This school has already shown a lack of honesty and accountability. It’ll be hard for students and their families to choose a school that’s comfortable putting its reputation above the concerns of others.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated that Bill Cosby represented Patrick O’Connor in 2006, but O’Connor actually represented Cosby.