Money can buy lots of things, like power, deference and visibility.
But it can’t buy admiration, as Temple University students have been loudly reminding board chair Patrick O’Connor since September. That’s when the school refurbished a popular pocket park in the heart of the campus.
Part of it was christened “O’Connor Plaza” in honor of the board chair and his wife, long-time Temple benefactors.
In 2005, O’Connor, a lawyer whose Cozen O’Connor mega-firm employs 700 attorneys in 26 cities, made the decision to defend fellow board member Bill Cosby against sexual-abuse allegations brought by Andrea Constand, the former director of operations for the Temple women’s basketball program. The civil suit ended in an out-of-court settlement that included a confidentiality agreement.
The Temple community learned about O’Connor’s extensive involvement in the case two years ago, when a judge unsealed the agreement, allowing the deposition transcripts to be made public.
Cosby, like anyone accused of a crime, certainly deserved a defense back in 2005. But Constand, as a school employee, deserved something, too: the powerful board’s neutrality as one member of the Temple community brought charges against another.
Didn’t anyone imagine that O’Connor’s involvement might impact other lower-level university staff who might want to lodge future complaints (of any kind) against university higher-ups?
Legal eagles at the time determined that O’Connor’s representation of Cosby hadn’t been unethical. But it sure stank to high heaven, especially at a school rooted in founder Russell Conwell’s championship of the common man.
O’Connor’s detractors said as much. Even the head of Temple’s faculty union stated publicly that O’Connor should step down. But the rumblings eventually quieted.
In 2017, the Jell-O Pudding hit the fan.
Constand’s criminal trial against Cosby, which ended in a hung jury, revealed how lecherous toward young women he had been – and how thoroughly O’Connor had defended the Cos’ behavior.
And the #MeToo movement exploded, showing just how pervasively sexual abuse by the powerful impacts the lives of the vulnerable.
By September, when O’Connor Plaza opened to great fanfare (during – wait for it – the school’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week), students like Martha Sherman had had enough.
“Victims of sexual abuse have to walk past that plaza every day and be reminded that the head of our university took Cosby’s side,” says Temple public-health and poli-sci senior senior Sherman, head of the school’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance. “It’s a slap in the face.”
Her group helped organize a protest in October and another last week outside Sullivan Hall, where O’Connor and fellow board members were meeting. Participants used a bullhorn to demand that the plaza be renamed, that O’Connor resign, and that Temple establish a stand-alone rape-crisis center.
The latter was among a list of recommendations in a 2014 report on campus sexual assault commissioned by former Temple president Neil Theobald. Many of the recommendations have been implemented, including a revamped Sexual Misconduct Resources website, expanded counseling services. and new ways to anonymously report assaults.
But no stand-alone site exists.
“We can pay for a plaza named after the man who defended Bill Cosby, but we can’t pay for a center that the president’s own report says victims need,” says Sherman. “That’s wrong.”
Maybe half-wrong. Temple spokesman Ray Betzner says that O’Connor’s most recent financial donation to the school “more than covered” the near-million-dollar cost of the new plaza, so it’s not like the university borrowed from one pot to fill another.
And Valerie Harrison, who advises Temple president Richard Englert on matters of equity, diversity and inclusion, says the school decided against establishing a freestanding center after consulting with sexual-assault survivors.
“Confidentiality and privacy were of paramount importance to them,” she says. “They didn’t want to be ‘outed’ if they were seen entering a designated rape-crisis center.”
The university has instead partnered with Women Organized Against Rape to offer 24-hour crisis service on campus in a location that is disclosed to the victims when they call the new hotline for help.
“Our research shows that to be the best practice,” says Harrison.
That was news to Sharon Mitchell, president of the Association for College Counseling Center Directors, when I asked her opinion.
“As far as I’m aware, there are no ‘best practices’ with regard to whether a sexual assault/rape crisis center should be freestanding or not,” she says. “Instead, colleges and universities try to make sure that sexual assault survivors are aware of many points of entry” for help.
A freestanding site could surely provide an important entry point at Temple. And think of the goodwill that Temple would engender if a certain board chair paid for it.
They could name it the O’Connor Center.