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September 17, 2015

Five for Friday: Neil Theobald

Influencers Academics
Temple President Neil Theobald Ryan S. Brandenberg/Temple University Photography

Temple President Neil Theobald teaches his Fall 2015 Freshman Seminar course.

Temple University is having a bit of a moment.

Two weeks ago, its football team toppled Penn State after a 31-game losing streak, and just last week, the university jumped six spots to No. 115 on U.S. News and World Report's annual "Best Colleges" ranking for national universities. By the end of 2015, the university will break ground on a massive state-of-the-art library designed by the same firm responsible for Barack Obama's Presidential Center and the Times Square redesign.

At the helm of this era (or, at least, season) of good feelings is President Neil Theobald, who took the reins from President Ann Weaver Hart in August 2012. Since relocating to Philadelphia from Indiana for the high-profile gig, he's been known for everything from increased research investment, to tackling a student debt problem that continues to trouble the university, to cutting varsity sports teams (and later reinstating two of them). 

Below, Theobald talks Temple, transitioning to life in Philadelphia and what he's up to this weekend.

What past Temple grad do you most admire?

At our football games, I always love sitting with our alums and catching up on their lives and telling them what is happening at Temple. At our season-opener with Penn State, I sat next to Murray Shusterman, Temple Class of ’33 and Temple Law Class of ’36. Last week, Murray had his 103rd birthday, and he is among the most upbeat, interesting, determined and smart people I know. Until recently, he taught law classes for his alma mater and served as a trustee. He gives back to the community in numerous ways. The most notable to me is that Murray funded the renovation of a beautiful Greek church on campus that keeps alive our connection to 19th-century Philadelphia. I can’t wait to see him at homecoming.

What’s your favorite place to lounge in Philadelphia?

Student events — music, art shows, rec sports — anywhere I can mingle and get to know more of our students. We hold a student BBQ outside my office every spring — and we are going to hold a special BBQ on the Saturday of Pope Francis’ visit — where I get to cook for our students, meet and learn more about their experiences and how Temple can assist them. Temple has a unique student body — really bright, energetic, and unspoiled. They love this university, and their passion for Temple is such a joy to share.

What’s the hardest part of being president of a university as big and in-the-spotlight as Temple?

Staying focused on our students and faculty and their success. That’s why my wife and I teach a freshman class each fall and I host a faculty lunch each week. I worked for a number of presidents at the University of Washington and Indiana University. My interactions with them often suggested that they were “in a bubble” and didn’t really understand the day-to-day issues facing the people they are employed to serve: the students and faculty. My 25 students give me entrée into what our new students are experiencing and what is and is not working well on campus. The faculty lunches have no agenda. For an hour, we discuss whatever is on the mind of a dozen or so faculty members. The term I use with my students is these types of settings allow me to “run my fingers through the organization," learn about successes and concerns — hopefully, at an early enough stage that we can address these issues.  

What about Philadelphia has surprised you most since moving here?

I have spent my career at two public universities—the University of Washington in Seattle and Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana — that simply dominated the psyche of citizens of Seattle or Bloomington. Philadelphia houses a number of world-class universities so Temple really needs to work hard to be sure the citizens of Philadelphia understand, for example, the indispensable role Temple Hospital plays in a city without a public hospital.

What are you up to this weekend?

Once each season, I travel with the football team — I do the same with men’s and women’s basketball — and ride the bus, sit in the meals and meetings and make sure I have a good grasp of how our athletic programs operate. My lesson from these trips is that we truly are blessed at Temple with outstanding coaches. I will be going to Massachusetts to spend Friday and Saturday with our team as we play UMass. On Sunday, I am hosting a group in Temple’s suite at the Eagles-Cowboys game. First, though, I have to prepare materials for Tuesday’s class. We live in Center City, so my wife and I are moving to campus next Thursday so we are available to assist. Of particular concern is the impact on our hospitals and the ability of our students to get off-campus. In addition to a student BBQ, I hope to get out for some softball and other activities with our students and staff.