JoAnne A. Epps, the acting Temple University president who died Tuesday afternoon, leaves behind an impressive legacy that inspired generations of students, legal scholars, criminal justice advocates, Black women in leadership, and Philadelphians everywhere.
The educational leader, who was 72 years old, had a lengthy career with Temple. She was sitting on stage at an event on the North Philly campus when she suddenly became ill and was taken to the hospital.
After nearly four decades of working at the university, Epps assumed the acting president role in April following the resignation of Jason Wingard. She was the first Black woman to ever serve in Temple’s top administrative position.
Epps grew up in Cheltenham, and “always had Temple in [her] blood,” she said at a 2017 event. Her mother worked as a secretary at the university, and Epps herself worked in the bookstore at the student center as a teen.
A first generation college student, she left the Philadelphia area to pursue undergraduate studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. In 1976, she earned a law degree from Yale University.
She started her legal career on the West Coast, working as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles. By 1980, she was back in Philly, working at the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Once back, she stayed in the area, dedicating her time and work to the Temple community and Philadelphia at large. Read on for more on Epps’ work and legacy.
3 decades at Temple Law, including 8 years as dean
Following a five-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney, Epps in 1985 began teaching at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, specializing in criminal law, evidence, and trial advocacy.
In 1989, she took on an administrative role — associate dean for academic affairs — and in 1994 became a full professor. Epps eventually rose to dean of the 1,200-student school, taking the position in 2008 and staying in the role until 2016.
Shortly after her tenure began, the Great Recession hit, and Epps had to navigate the challenges associated with it, including fundraising issues and a shrinking job market for graduates. Her predecessor Robert Reinstein — who was the longest-serving law school dean in the country when he stepped down — told The Temple News in 2016 that Epps was a trustworthy figure and the law school had done well under her tenure despite the external factors working against it.
Also during her tenure, Epps worked with donors to create the Sheller Center for Social Justice, which does research, advocacy, and legal work on issues that impact low-wage workers, immigrants, people returning from incarceration, and other disadvantaged groups.
Her list of awards and honors goes on and on
Epps has been recognized widely for her influence in legal education and her work promoting diversity in the legal profession.
Her CV includes over two dozen honors, from the All-American Football Foundation’s Outstanding Faculty Athletic Representative to a Leadership in Diversity award from the law firm Fisher Phillips.
During Epps’s time as dean of Temple Law, National Jurist Magazine named her one of the most influential people in legal education for four consecutive years (2013–2016).
She was also named one of the 100 most influential Black attorneys in the U.S. by Lawyers of Color Magazine — multiple times.
U.S. Senator Bob Casey offered remarks on the Senate floor in 2015 during Black History Month honoring Epps for “her significant work to advance access to justice and for inspiring and empowering new generations of attorneys to emulate her commitment to service, integrity, and passion.”
Among several roles in government, Epps was influential in police oversight
In addition to holding a bevy of chair and board positions at professional organizations and nonprofits over the course of her career, Epps was also appointed to several posts in Philly’s city government.
Mayor John Street in 2001 named Epps chair of a seven-person task force on police discipline, which he’d formed in the wake of controversy. The board’s job was to examine the Philadelphia Police Department’s disciplinary process and arbitration system and craft a report for the mayor.
In 2011, a federal court appointed Epps as an independent auditor in the Bailey v. City of Philadelphia settlement, the resolution of a class-action lawsuit over the city’s stop-and-frisk policies. In that role, she was tasked with reviewing and analyzing data the police department was required to collect on instances of stop and frisk and making recommendations for how the department’s practices could remain within the bounds of the Constitution.
Mayor Michael Nutter in 2015 named Epps to another independent police oversight board, which was created after the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on the PPD’s use of deadly force.
Epps was also a member of the city’s Board of Ethics, first appointed by Nutter in 2015. She served on the board until her death this week.
She spent her final years in some of the highest ranking positions at Temple University
Epps left her post as law school dean in 2016 to join Temple’s overarching administration as provost, the No. 2 post at the university (after president) that’s in charge of supervising all of Temple’s deans and students.
She left that role in 2021 when then-President Jason Wingard reorganized the administration, and then became a senior advisor to the president.
Following several tumultuous, controversy-filled months and Wingard’s subsequent resignation earlier this year, Epps was appointed acting president. (Before she was offered that role, she’d actually intended to retire.)
Although Epps only anticipated holding the role for about a year, she listed the primary goals for her brief tenure as bettering public safety on campus and stabilizing enrollment.
After her death, Epps was lionized by leaders at all levels of government
With the news of her passing, city, state, and federal government officials shared statements mourning the loss.
“I met JoAnne Epps when I was a 17-year-old freshman at Temple University,” state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Temple alum, said in his statement. “Though our titles have changed over the years one thing never did, and that was she was always a friend and a mentor.”
Pa. Speaker of the House and Philly Rep. Joanna McClinton credited Epps for “championing women and people of color in the legal profession and inspiring a generation of leaders.”
Philly Mayor Jim Kenney wrote in a tweet that Epps was a “a passionate and steadfast leader who inspired many.” Gov. Josh Shapiro described her as a “a powerful force and constant ambassador for Temple University.”
“Losing her is heartbreaking for Philadelphia,” Shapiro wrote.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson noted that Epps’ legacy extended beyond her role as a “trusted leader” at Temple, as she was also “well respected throughout the entire Philadelphia region.”
U.S. Attorney Jacqueline C. Romero described Epps — who once worked at the office Romero now heads — as “mentor and confidante” of hers, adding that she was mourning “with countless women who had the pleasure of JoAnne’s wise advice, mentorship, and counsel over the years.”
“She was an icon in the legal community, dedicating her life to public service, the rule of law, experiential legal education, equity and diversity in the profession, and the advancement of civil rights,” Romero wrote in her statement. “She was tireless and passionate about the issues she held dear.”
On Wednesday, Shapiro ordered that Commonwealth flags fly at half-staff in Epps’ honor.