Grounded Owl: Neil Theobald’s tumultuous Temple tenure

He fought for a stadium and delayed a Bill Cosby decision for months, but his board lost patience after a $22 million budget shortfall.

Temple University President Neil Theobald is an expert in funding higher education. He has a doctorate in financing for colleges and universities, and has been quoted in books and papers as one of the nation’s foremost experts on funding universities and managing student debt.

Perhaps it was inevitable that higher education financing would prove Theobald’s ultimate downfall. In a move that turned heads across the city and its vaunted alumni network, Temple’s Board of Trustees offered Theobold the chance to resign, issued a vote of “no confidence” in their $450,000-per-year president Tuesday and announced their intention to fire him.

Temple leaders are still grappling with the stunning development. Provost Hai-Lung Dai had just been removed by Theobald in a three-paragraph email the same day news broke that the school faced a $22 million budgetary shortfall in order to fund financial aid and scholarships for students. Then, Theobald apparently alluded to the Board of Trustees that Dai had been accused of sexual harassment — an allegation both Dai and the board vehemently deny.

Now, it’s unclear exactly why the board’s kicking Theobald, president of the 39,000-student university for three years, to the curb. Firings at the top of universities aren’t exactly common, but a spokesman for the board told reporters that Theobald knew of the budgetary shortfall at least a year ago and had suggested asking students to shoulder the burden of the administration’s mistake.

“Depending on exactly how the scholarship issue played out,” Faculty Senate President Michael Sachs said, “you could make a case that the buck stops here at the president’s desk.”

The apparent end of Theobald’s Temple tenure caps a tumultuous career on North Broad Street, one that was dotted with campus enhancements and an effort to reduce the debt load plaguing students across the nation. But it was also filled with criticism from all sides, whether it was his pushing for an on-campus football stadium after cutting other varsity sports or his sluggish response when Bill Cosby, the school’s most famous alum (and donor), was accused of sexual violence.

Big changes in the early days

At the tail end of 2012 after a 10-month long national search for Temple’s next president, Theobald was hired by the board, departing his post as the chief financial officer at Indiana University. Not long after, Theobald developed one of his most well-known programs: Fly in 4, a plan to fast-track students through college. The idea behind it? Student debt increases the longer a student is in school. He wanted to encourage undergraduates to get out of Temple in four years or less.

“I’m actually less concerned about tuition than I am by debt,” Theobald told the student newspaper in August. “Debt limits your options once you graduate. … If you take a look at differences across students and how much debt they take on, how long it takes to get their degree is the primary deterrent.”

The short-term goal was to increase on-time graduation by 60 percent. Those goals dovetailed with Theobald’s plans for making college more accessible for low-income students. He developed programs that have made Temple the best school in the area at attracting low-income students, including eliminating the SAT requirement for admission. Thirty-five percent of students at Temple last year were low-income and they graduated at an almost identical rate as anyone else. Application rates in general have skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, Temple was dealing with moderate tuition increases following massive cuts in funding from the state that happened under former Gov. Tom Corbett. Funding levels for state-related schools — that is, Temple, along with Pitt, Penn State and Lincoln — have stagnated, but remain significantly lower than they were even a decade ago.

Theobald also tried to develop a working relationship with the faculty, though he largely delegated dealing with academics to Dai. In fact, members of the faculty say they saw their provost more often than their president, who was largely focused on developmental projects, fundraising and the like.

“From an interpersonal perspective, [Theobald] had a regular lunch group where he would invite different faculty just to hear what’s on their mind,” Sachs said. “He certainly wasn’t aloof by any means.”

Art Hocher, president of the Faculty Union, wrote in a letter to faculty members following this week’s decision that while labor “has at times had differences with both former President Theobald and former Provost Dai,” he’s more troubled that the board made the decision to vote “no confidence” in Theobald without public input.

“Our primary interest is for Temple to remain a high quality institution of higher education,” he wrote. “It is worrisome that such actions that could potentially have a huge effect on the university were apparently taken without input from faculty.”

But by the end of Theobald’s first year, the rumors started circulating: Would this new-ish university president really be OK with cutting five of its 24 varsity sports to save $3 million of its athletics budget?

After Theobald was hired, he told reporters that the school’s recent move to the Big East Conference (now called the American Athletic Conference) would be at the top of his agenda for his first year in office. Apparently that agenda also included supporting a new athletic director, and cutting five varsity sports including baseball and track and field.

“I recommended that with two exceptions, the decision to reduce the number of intercollegiate varsity teams to a size more in line with our colleagues in the American Athletic Conference should stand,” Theobald wrote in a letter at the time, writing that “the decision to reduce the number of Temple’s varsity sports and bring us in line with all other mid-major athletic programs in the U.S. was not an easy one.”

Speculation grew that the sports were cut to make room for more spending on the school’s football program. Theobald was adamant at the time that wasn’t the case. But it wouldn’t be long before Theobald got behind a plan that did just that.

Campus enhancements

Rendering of Temple's new, state-of-the-art library.

Rendering of Temple's new, state-of-the-art library.

Temple

In many ways, Theobald’s continued leading Temple into a new era. In the next decade, the North Philadelphia campus could physically look completely different as building projects come to fruition. One of the most ambitious projects is a new, state-of-the-art library that Temple is spending $300 million on alone. The school’s also undergoing a new landscape master plan, the construction of an enhanced quad area and the demolition of the former William Penn High School.

But none of these projects — which were mostly planned before Theobald arrived — have garnered anywhere near the attention (and controversy) as a proposed on-campus football stadium.

For years, the Owls have played at Lincoln Financial Field in an agreement with the Eagles, paying $1.8 million a year for the privilege. Since the beginning of his time at Temple, Theobald made it clear he was in favor of bringing a football stadium to campus. It would not only save money, but he was convinved, “a well-run football program can create innumerable benefits to a national university.”

Many do not agree. Legions of students and residents of the surrounding neighborhood have revolted against the plans for a new stadium as Temple students continue to sprawl into North Philadelphia and push out residents who have lived there for generations. Mayor Jim Kenney has been critical of the plans, and Council President Darrell Clarke — who represents the district where Temple sits — has said that without input from the neighborhood, a stadium won’t happen.

But Theobald and the school’s Board of Trustees have moved ahead, approving preliminary plans for building a stadium complex in the area of 16th and Norris streets and dumping more than $1 million into conducting feasibility studies alone.

And the neighborhood is tense. It’s been tense for decades — long before Theobald got to campus. Last school year, Theobald attempted to clear up any confusion as to whose side he was on when it comes to Temple students wreaking havoc in the surrounding neighborhood.

The school announced in April that it would crack down on off-campus parties and better target enforcement of alcohol violations in the surrounding area around the school.

“We recognize that social events are part of college life, and as long as these events are conducted in a safe, respectful manner, they are acceptable,” Theobald said at the time. “However, we cannot condone disrespectful and disruptive behavior by a relatively small number of students, nor can we ignore an increase in the number of students hospitalized and injured during events involving alcohol.

Turmoil in the last year

Bill Cosby is by far Temple’s most famous alumnus. He was a longtime member of the school’s Board of Trustees, held an honorary degree from the university and was the school’s most visible cheerleader.

So when the comedian was accused by dozens of women of sexual assault dating back to the 1970s, members of the Temple community were looking for leadership from the school’s president to condemn one of their own.

Meanwhile, the school was already under investigation by the feds for possible Title IX violations as it relates to its response to sexual assault on campus and was undergoing an internal review of its sexual assault policies.

While Cosby resigned from his spot on the board, Theobald was the one who was the target of vitriol from activists and petitions begging for Cosby’s honorary degree to be revoked and for the school to denounce Cosby’s alleged actions. In fact, despite dozens of accusers from New York to Los Angeles, the only criminal charges Cosby is facing are in connection with an incident involving Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee.

Theobald was steadfast in his hands-off approach when it came to Cosby, telling the student newspaper in August: “All of this happened before I came here, so I really don’t know much about it.”

That’s not the same Neil Theobald the Temple community has seen in the school’s latest strife. He was swift in his decision to fire Dai. And Philadelphia Magazine obtained an email Theobald sent indicating he isn’t going down without a fight and intends to serve out his contract, which ends in December 2017.

The Board of Trustees can still vote to keep him around. And he can still take legal action and argue he should keep his spot at the top of the university based on his contract. But for now, Chancellor Richard Englert is likely taking over as the acting president at Temple University. New provost JoAnne Epps comes from the Beasley School of Law and is a well-liked head at the university.

The Temple community is bracing for a probable national search for a school president — it would be the second one in four years.

“We’ll do a national search and find a new excellent leader who will continue moving us forward in the very positive direction we’ve been going so far,” Sachs said. “There’s cause for optimism, certainly. And we’ll keep our fingers and toes crossed.”

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