JoAnne A. Epps: Stepping into new roles is nothing new to her

20161113_inq_epps13z-b
JoAnne Epps is right at home on the campus of Temple, where she oversees academics everywhere but the medical school.

It was a tough lesson, but it served JoAnne A. Epps well.

In the summer of 1975, the optimism that had shaped her undergraduate years at Trinity College and then her legal training at Yale University suddenly deflated.

Epps had been invited to a prestigious summer internship at Drinker Biddle & Reath, at the time the epitome of an old-line WASPy law firm in Philadelphia.

Then, as now, it was commonplace for firms to extend full-time job offers to their summer interns - simply being selected for a summer slot was a crucial test. But Epps didn't get an offer, and she was crushed.

"So I went slinking back to law school, having failed to secure what most of my classmates had," she said. "I had a tremendous crisis because I worried that I would not be able to be a lawyer."

Epps, an African American woman who now is provost of Temple University and one of the nation's best known academic leaders, recovered quickly. After a time of soul-searching at Yale, and sage advice from an African American dean, she accepted a job in the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, and then a few years later signed on as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.

A short time later, in 1985, she joined the law faculty at Temple, eventually rising to dean in 2008.

To Epps, the daughter of a secretary and a machinist, the rituals and codes of the white-collar world were mostly unknown. Each step in her career was a journey into uncharted cultural terrain.

Instinct and wit were her primary guides.

Looking back at her Drinker Biddle experience, Epps said, she missed a lot of clues.

She would never say racial discrimination factored into her not getting a job offer. She's too diplomatic for that. Rather, she focuses on the things she misunderstood about Drinker, and how she failed to appreciate how subtle signaling can open doors.

"Looking back on it, [the experience] was colored by my complete lack of appreciation for the institution that I was a part of," Epps recalled. "I don't want to say that I was smart enough and they discriminated against me. I don't have any basis for saying that. What I think is that I didn't then appreciate what a white-shoe firm might be.

"I remember they had a rule that the men in the office had to put on their jackets when they left their offices to go to the men's room," recalled Epps, now 65. "I thought that was the dumbest rule I had ever heard of, and I probably said it out loud.

"So, in looking back, as I matured I respected the venerable aspect of that firm, the cultural issues that mattered, that probably went completely over my head. Oh, my girlfriends and I laugh all the time about the conversations we missed, all the doors we didn't know existed."

Since then, Epps has proved herself an adept navigator of bureaucratic minefields and hurdles.

A bigger Temple challenge

In July, after eight years as dean of Temple's law school - a tenure challenged by a sharp decline in the legal job market as firms adjusted to the decline in corporate spending - Epps was elevated to university provost, a perch from which she has supervisory authority over academic affairs for a 38,000-student school with an annual budget of $1.4 billion.

She took over during a time of turmoil. In July, the Temple board forced out president Neil Theobald over a deficit in the merit-scholarship aid budget and his dismissal of then-provost Hai-Lung Dai.

Epps' appointment, after a successful run as dean of the law school, was widely praised.

"The thing about JoAnne is, she is smart but she also has interpersonal skills," said Philadelphia lawyer Carl Singley, who as law school dean in the 1980s recruited Epps to the faculty. "There is nothing pretentious about her. The students loved her as a teacher."

How Epps got here is a lesson in the serendipitous nature of professional life.

That she attended Trinity, a top-ranked small college, itself involved a bit of happenstance.

While a student at Cheltenham High School, Epps was approached by a Trinity student, Jay Schinfeld, who was helping to recruit promising African Americans to the college.

Schinfeld, who is now an Abington-based reproductive endocrinologist, had heard about Epps and offered to drive her to Connecticut, where Trinity is located, to meet with the dean of admissions.

Her parents didn't have the means to pay for far-flung college tours - Epps herself had never been farther away from home than Harrisburg - so she accepted. A short time later, with an offer of tuition assistance in hand, Epps enrolled.

There were challenges right away.

Epps was a member of the first class of women at Trinity. That first year, as she arrived at campus with her father, she and other young women were greeted with signs saying "Coeds, go home."

"My dad was a wonderful man, and he said, 'If you need me to come and get you, I will,' " Epps recalled.

But there was no need for that, and she quickly settled in.

On taking chances

In a blog post she wrote last year, Epps described her decision-making process at crucial points during her life.

"I think of myself as careful and cautious, not at all reckless," she wrote. "But looking back, it seems I've dared a lot. Much of the daring came from moving forward when the world in front of me was completely opaque. I now realize that I had a lot to figure out for myself and by myself. It's like stepping into a dark room and hoping you find your way around without too many bumps and bruises."

Her responsibilities as provost at Temple have broadened considerably. Where Epps once was the head of just the law school, she now has to look after all of the academic departments of the university except for the medical school, a job that keeps her running from one meeting and event to another.

Add to that her many civic appointments and roles, among them chair of a police oversight board with responsibility for ensuring that Philadelphia implements the recommendations of a U.S. Justice Department report finding that police too often use lethal force.

She also trained prosecutors for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and has been mentioned as a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of her first impressions as provost is that Temple, once thought of as a commuter school, needs to do more to show that it has evolved into a major research university with academic stars, high-powered alumni, and a talented pool of students.

"What I want to do is make sure that the perception of the place meets the reality," she said. "I think we play a little lower in people's minds than what is actually the case."

The view from abroad

Epps sat down for a recent interview shortly after returning from a trip to China, where she attended graduation exercises for the Temple Rule of Law program, which trains Chinese judges, prosecutors, government officials, and others in the basics of the U.S. legal system.

The program, which in essence offers additional graduate education to trained lawyers, is an example of Temple's reach, Epps said.

Hundreds of Chinese government officials have gone through the program, and are bringing ideas about the American justice system back to their offices, she said.

"We are changing the minds of people who are in the party and the government and in a position to make judgments," Epps said.

All this focus on civic engagement, legal education, and now making sure the academic departments of Temple run smoothly has left Epps little personal time.

She has season tickets to the Temple football and basketball teams and attends games.

She also is devoted to the monthly meetings of her book club, called the "Badass Book Club." A recent favorite was The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

But it's been mostly about work for Epps. She lives with her husband, L. Harrison Jay, who works in community relations at Temple, in Shamong Township, Burlington County.

"My husband, to me, has one of the most balanced lives; he really knows how to balance work, chores and employment," Epps said.

"I don't have that balance because I literally work all of the time."

To people who know Epps well, her greatest strength is her skill in persuasion.

Singley recalled that when he was dean of Temple Law, the toughest challenge he faced was placating the competing rivalries of talented and ambitious faculty members.

"If you think that managing the egos of lawyers is difficult, try managing the egos of law teachers, because what makes the job so challenging is you don't have all the normal perks," such as the ability to dole out large salary increases, Singley said.

When Epps took over as dean, there was the potential for bruised egos, Singley said, but it didn't turn out that way.

Of her initiation into that new job, he said, "JoAnne was so adept at meeting them where they were, and putting them at ease."

cmondics@phillynews.com

215-854-5957

@cmondics