Temple University early Tuesday morning elevated law school dean JoAnne A. Epps to provost, its number-two position, replacing Hai-Lung Dai, who was removed from the post last week.
The appointment, subject to approval by the board of trustees, would be permanent – not interim, as universities often do so they can launch a national search.
Epps, 65, who has spent 31 years at the law school, the last eight as its dean, was appointed by president Neil D. Theobald. Her title will include senior vice president and chief academic officer also, and she will oversee academics across the university’s 17 schools and colleges and 12 administrative offices.
“JoAnne’s impeccable record in teaching, student success, diversity, and social justice, coupled with her long-standing commitment to Temple and the city of Philadelphia, makes her ideally suited for this important leadership role,” Theobald said in a statement.
Gregory N. Mandel, a law professor and associate dean of research, will step in as interim law school dean, Theobald said.
Epps said she hadn’t sought the post and only recently learned that Theobald wanted her to take it.
“I think the university is in a terrific place, and if I can help contribute to its research and scholarly and teaching excellence, I’m delighted to lend my efforts,” said Epps, a Yale Law School grad who spent nine years as a trial attorney before joining Temple.
She acknowledged that she was walking into a controversial situation. Dai, a chemist who remains a tenured faculty member, has hired a lawyer, and some faculty have decried his ouster, launching a petition to urge the board to scrutinize Theobald’s decision.
The university issued a short statement last week saying Dai was being released of his administrative duties, but offered no reason. The same day of the announcement the university acknowledged it had a $22 million gap in its financial-aid budget for merit scholarships and had taken steps to balance the budget. Theobald was not happy with the overexpenditure, while Dai defended it, sources said, and the issue caused a rift between Theobald and his second-in-command.
Epps said she understands the faculty have questions but said personnel issues are private.
“What I really hope is that I will be able to assure the faculty and students and other members of the community that the things about Temple’s momentum that we’re all so excited about, I will lend every fiber of my being to continue,” she said.
Because the decision was so sudden, she said she had made no plans yet for changes in the office, nor has Theobald given her an agenda.
“I’m hoping to continue to build on Temple’s strong research commitment and continue to attract world-class faculty,” she said.
Patrick O’Connor, chair of the board of trustees and also a lawyer, called Epps “a model jurist.”
“She is a thoughtful listener, strong leader, and a skilled consensus builder – all essential qualities for the position of provost,” he said in a statement.
Epps, a native of Cheltenham Township, received her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973. She was introduced to the school by a young Trinity College student who had visited Cheltenham High School when she was a senior to recruit young minority students. He drove her to Trinity for a visit with the dean of admissions, and soon she had an offer of tuition assistance.
Her father was a machinist and later an installment-loan collector, and her mother a secretary at Temple, who retired in the 1980s. Epps worked as a cashier in the Temple bookstore when she was 16 but didn’t envision becoming an Owl – she didn’t want to go to school where her mother worked.
“But that summer gave me a feeling of belonging to the city that I hadn’t had,” said Epps, who noted that she had largely grown up in a white community.
After Yale, she became deputy city attorney in Los Angeles in 1976 and in 1980 returned to Philadelphia to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She began at Temple law in 1985 and was named dean in 2008.
Last year, she was appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter to chair a Police Oversight Board responsible for making sure Philadelphia implements recommendations of a Justice Department report critical of officers’ use of lethal force. She’s also on the city ethics commission and continues to serve as a court-appointed monitor of city efforts to revamp stop-and-frisk tactics by police.
She presided over the law school at a challenging time when enrollments nationally have declined. During her leadership, the school moved into the top 50 in U.S. News & World Report rankings, started a center for compliance and ethics, and created the Stephen and Sandra Sheller Center for Social Justice, which has taken on the issue of language access in the courts for non-English speakers.
“I love what it represents,” she said of the Sheller Center. “Our students are learning how they can be helpful.”
Growing up in the 1960s, Epps never imagined how her life would unfold.
Her career aspirations were set: She said she wanted to become a legal secretary, like the fictional character Della Street on her favorite show, Perry Mason.
She almost left Trinity after her sophomore year, she said, because she wasn’t getting the typing and shorthand skills she needed to land that job.
Then a Trinity dean suggested she become a lawyer, something she had never considered.
“I had never met a lawyer, a man or a woman, white or black,” she said. “I reversed course. I said that’s not a bad idea.”
While she loved the nurturing environment of Trinity, she said she found it difficult to fit in at Yale, where she said most of the rest of her class were white students from privileged families.
“Very few were first-generation college or law school,” she said. “Many were children or grandchildren of attorneys and judges. They arrived with an understanding of the setting.”
There was no effort to really help her or the few others like her learn to cope, she said.
“It was hard and lonely,” she said.
Breaking into the law business wasn’t easy either, she said. She said she loves law as a career that allows the blending of skill and creativity.
“Every one of us is able to bring our own unique perspectives to whatever dilemma we’re facing, armed with a high level of skill and training,” she said.
She continued to teach while serving as dean. In the fall semester, she will teach a one-credit course on litigation basics to first-year students.
“I really believe that the leader of an enterprise needs to do what the enterprise does,” she said. “Otherwise you get way too isolated.”
She and her husband, L. Harrison Jay, who works in community relations at Temple, live in Shamong, Burlington County. She enjoys reading in her spare time and discussing books with other members of the “Bad Ass Book Club,” as her group calls itself.
Her favorite law TV show is The Practice, in part because it was produced by a Temple alum.
She’s also a sports fan – the Eagles are her favorite team – and once served as the university’s NCAA faculty athletics representative. Where does she stand on Temple’s plan for an on-campus football stadium?
“We are invested in Division I football, and if you have Division I football, your football team has to have a place to play,” she said.
The university should address community concerns and move forward with the project, she said, putting her squarely in agreement with Theobald.
“I think it will work,” she said. “I think we can accommodate the community and I think it will be terrific.”