When he was appointed to Temple University’s board of trustees in 1971, Patrick J. O’Connor, then 28, was its youngest member ever.
He’s been on the board for more than half of the time since (he went off during most of Peter Liacouras’ tenure), serving as chairman for the last 10 years. On Aug. 1, O’Connor, who also is vice chair of Cozen O’Connor, one of the region’s biggest law firms, concludes his Temple chairmanship, though he will remain a trustee.
During his tenure, Temple’s student body, now totaling more than 40,000, has grown, as has its research prestige. Its endowment has more than doubled, and it has embarked on ambitious building projects, including a 27-story residence hall, the Science Education and Research Center, and a new library. The university twice froze tuition during his leadership in an effort to keep costs down, and saw its first Rhodes scholar, as well as success on the football field.
O’Connor, 76, recently spoke with The Inquirer in his law office in West Conshohocken.
Hometown: Kingston, Pa.
College: King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, bachelor’s in history and government; Villanova University law school
Career: Joined Cozen O’Connor in 1973, when he was one of five lawyers. Now the firm employs more than 750 lawyers.
Family: Wife, Marie; four children and 12 grandchildren.
Favorite spots on Temple’s campus: Polett Walk, Lenfest Plaza, O’Connor Plaza (funded by and named for O’Connor and his wife). “I like green and trees and I love to see the student traffic, the kids walking to and from their classes. The energy is palpable.”
Favorite movie: The Godfather
Favorite food: Italian, veal, and fish
Favorite vacation spot: “Anywhere with my family. If I have my family and grandkids around, I could be in Shickshinny.”
Last book read: A Gentleman in Moscow
Exercise: Golf, tennis, working out
Hero: “That’s easy. My mother. She raised 10 of us. My father [a lawyer who graduated first in his class from Georgetown University law school] died when I was young. She had an indomitable spirit. She raised us to be independent and fearless of what others thought. She gave us compassion and a thirst for helping others.”
“I had no clue where Temple was. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Then the board chairman appointed him to a commission to examine the health system, which was facing a large deficit.
“I had studied the case ... and got fully involved with Temple at that point, and got to appreciate who it was, what it was doing with the students, the energy, and I fell in love with it because I found it to be King’s College on steroids.
“I’m 'Temple Made,’ too, in a way.”
“Restructuring the health system.
“It was on life support, deferred maintenance, deferred capital. It’s the Hahnemann story. I saw it, and we needed to do something or we would become the next Hahnemann.
“Finally, we’re on the final steps of ... firm financial footing and becoming a community health system that serves our neighbors. That took some doing. But the board supported that effort. The administration supported that effort. And the health system went along with it.
“The other is keeping tuition low. It’s always been a mission of mine.”
“We had 36 members of our board, 12 appointed by the state, and on every major issue that we had, good, bad, or indifferent ... we had unanimity. And I’m most proud of that, because some of these issues are such that you’d think they would be so divisive that there would be votes against.”
“I think we could have done a better job of choosing a president; not the current president [Richard M. Englert], but the past president [Neil D. Theobald]. You need someone who knows Philadelphia and knows how to relate to a board.”
“Neil had some great initiatives, but ... he got confused on who were the policymakers. And the board are the policymakers, global policymakers.
“Having Dick Englert, being at Temple for 41 years, understanding and having served in every capacity, who loves the school, loves the students, loves the professors, knows the board, is the calmest, greatest three years of my life.”
“That’s Mitch’s decision [new board chair Mitchell Morgan]. We had some issues, the business school issue, ... the stadium issue, other issues that it would be untimely to look for a president and given the fact that Dick has done such a great job.”
Even with a search, he said, Englert likely will be president two more years.
“I think the board will, if and when they go to search, and it will happen, is going to try to focus on someone who knows the institution well, and what its mission is and its relationship to the city, as opposed to an outsider coming in, not really understanding the uniqueness of the mission and the importance of being in North Philly.”
The project is on hold, but O’Connor said he still supports the idea.
“The cost to lease the Linc is exorbitant. We’ve done analyses; if we’re able to build a stadium that would hold about 30,000 people, that [Temple would come out ahead by]about $4 million ... per year.
“The existence of an on-campus stadium ... would bring our alums back to the campus — many of them have not been there — and would serve to bring philanthropy.
“If we can get our alums back to that campus who haven’t been there in 20, 30 years, 10 years, I guarantee you there will be a reinvigoration of their involvement with Temple.”
“We now have ensured globally that whatever is submitted in terms of these things is checked and rechecked, the same processes are followed in all the schools.
“Things have calmed down.... We’ve had some losses in some programs.… But the underlying programs are solid and moving forward.
“I hope someday U.S. News will restore whatever ranking they think we deserve, but it’s certainly more than being unranked.”
The university said in July 2015 that O’Connor did not violate any board policies in representing his fellow trustee Cosby.
“Nothing to add.... People have a right to counsel. There was no conflict. It was cleared by the board.”
“It’s hard to say. Bill Cosby’s been through a lot, and his appeal is still pending, and there are some legal issues with respect to the evidence there, and I can’t comment on that because I’m not totally familiar with them.”
“My point is with the media, there are a lot of good things that happen at Temple that I have been part of, and that never seems to be the news. The news is, ‘Oh, you fired X or you represent X.’ I think there should be a balanced focus on Temple and what it does.
“We serve as trustees with our time, our advice, and in many cases our philanthropy. We’re not being paid for it.... Sometimes I grieve when I see me and others get attacked for things that we’re doing in the line of duty.
“I know in my heart when I look in the mirror, I’m fine with what I’ve done. And I’m happy to have helped in some small way with Temple and its mission.”
“That to me was the greatest tribute I could ever get. That exemplifies why I was at Temple.