Temple U homepage with students and a message: Because the world won't change itself

Temple University is a mess. Let’s fix it.

This was originally a social media rant published here.

Temple University is a mess. Let’s fix it.

I’m an alumnus of Temple, and a resident of Philadelphia, but even if you aren’t either of those things, what the school represents can matter to you if you care about the future of cities, and economic mobility and, sure, higher education too.

I love Temple University. I’m proud of having graduated there. I had a really special experience, met many of the most important people in my life today and it helped make me the person I am today. This comes with love because I want it to be its best self.

Temple is a big urban research university. It has lots of students — 20k undergrads and 8k graduate students — and by American standards, it has remained relatively affordable — under $20k a year for kids living in Pennsylvania, and 70% of their students get need-based financial aid.

Over the last 20 years, through controversial real estate moves, the school has further consolidated a campus that hugs North Broad Street, the very spine of Philadelphia city. It’s the most city school in a city full of schools.

In part because of all of that, Temple’s student population has long been unusually diverse — more than half of their students are people of color, including over 20% of admitted students being Black according to their most recent data. Its international student numbers were climbing like everyone else’s in the 2010s.

Thanks to a big successful branding effort led by then President Peter Liacouras in the 1980s, Temple has a distinctive brand and logo that is seen across Philadelphia — including campuses, research facilities and hospitals — in addition to respected campuses in Tokyo and Rome. Most cities in the country have some school that plays that role.

But boy the last few years have not been kind to my alma mater.

The urban crime narrative hit Temple hard. Main Campus is in the very center of poor Black Philadelphia, and in the early days of the pandemic, the national violent crime uptick came very close to a school that had increasingly attracting kids who had limited experience with urban living. All their suburban moms and dads got very nervous. (Even though, I gotta add, cities, and Philadelphia and Temple, is just so much safer than they are was 10, or 20 and certainly 30 years ago)

The enrollment cliff affecting all universities struck fear over at Temple. Urban American schools used the Millennial interest in cities, and growing international student interest in an American degree to boost enrollment in the 2010s. Others are finding new ways to grow with younger GenZ, but Temple has zig-zagged all over the place. It’s had its own existential conversation.

Then there’s leadership. Temple has had four university presidents since 2016, and six since 2000 when legendary Peter Liacouras retired. Setting aside Liacouras, whom I admired, and Joanne Epps, who died very suddenly, I’m not sure if any of those other presidents ever seemed to actually like what Temple is: a big urban research school that has helped poor kids get college degrees since the 1880s.

Also, uh, a former Temple dean could go to prison? Point is: leadership is a problem.

Phew. So what can we do about it?

  • Hire a president who likes Temple, who gets Temple, with insider knowledge of the system, who can work Pennsylvania politics and Philadelphia culture. The Temple University president job is supposed to be a great job — you can effectively be a shadow mayor with fewer of the same political demands. We need someone who, you know, has been there done that. (Yes, Temple, should hire Drexel President John Fry, who needs a bigger and more demanding stage)
  • Get re-aligned with Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a life sciences leader — Temple’s a top 100 research institution (becoming an R1 school in 2015), and its research dollars should dominate in and around life sciences (Because right now, that is entirely a story of the University of Pennsylvania system, which I respect and could use more competition). Philadelphia is a creative place — acquire bankrupt University of the Arts. Philadelphia is a poor place — Temple’s social sciences departments know more about poverty than anywhere. Philadelphia is a violent place — its hospital system knows more about gun violence and the intertwined traumas than anywhere. Pennsylvania is a political consequential place — the Temple community is one of the largest and therefore most impactful blocs in the world. Philadelphia is truly, deeply and beautifully urban, and Temple should be too. Temple is finishing school for proper Philadelphians.
  • Go back to Temple’s roots. Economic mobility is a big part of American needs. Stop chasing what other universities are doing, because it’s unconscionable that Harvard has a $50b tax advantaged endowment but only educates 8k students. Ivy League schools have made themselves into luxury goods; Hedge funds with mascots. That’s not what our big research universities should be. Make your graduate programs more competitive, and your undergraduate more attainable — by being lower cost.

Oh, and disband the football team and throw your resources into men’s and women’s basketball because that must be elite again. (Whoops!)

See ya!

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