Peter Liacouras, president who transformed Temple, dies

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Temple president Peter Liacouras preparing to introduce Dawn Staley as the women's basketball coach in 2000. Liacouras saw sports success as vital to enhancing the university’s image.

Peter Liacouras had a vision for Temple University. He wanted the commuter school on North Broad Street to become a world-class institution.

He wanted star sports teams and leafy green quads and all the hallmarks of a classic American college experience. He wanted a diverse faculty and a student body that looked like the city Temple called home.

And for nearly two decades as Temple president, he charged headfirst toward that vision - courting controversy along the way - as the university he dreamed of slowly became reality.

Last fall, partially paralyzed by a stroke and having lost the ability to speak, he was able to watch from his room in a nursing home as Temple's football team beat Penn State for the first time in 74 years.

Dr. Liacouras, 85, died Thursday night after a long illness stemming from the 2010 stroke.

He served as the seventh president of the North Philadelphia university, leading it from 1982 to 2000.

"He spent his entire adult life working at Temple, hoping to help make it a better place," son Greg said Friday. "No one fought harder, but in the end, he died peacefully, surrounded by his family."

The son of Greek immigrants who ran a South Philadelphia grocery store, Dr. Liacouras never quite lost his working-class attitude.

"In his short-sleeve shirts . . . he looked like he ran a pretty good neighborhood restaurant rather than a pretty good local college," the Daily News wrote upon his retirement.

A graduate of Yeadon High School, he failed at the College of William and Mary but went on to graduate from Drexel University. From there, he earned a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, a master's degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University, and a master of laws from Harvard University. In 1963, he became a professor at Temple Law School, and later served as its dean for eight years before he was elected president of the university.

As law school dean, he hired Frank M. McClellan, one of several black professors he made a point of seeking out.

"From the time he met me, he decided he wanted me to come to Temple," McClellan recalled. "And he kept calling me every year. I remember him saying that the deans at all the other law schools kept saying they couldn't find people of color or women who were good enough to hire. And he said they weren't looking hard enough."

Dr. Liacouras chaired a committee appointed in 1970 to study why black applicants to the Pennsylvania bar were not gaining admission. The Liacouras Committee, as it was known, found that bar members grading the exams were given photos of applicants, even though the tests were supposed to be anonymous.

In the two years after the committee recommended changes to the bar process, committee member Judge Ricardo Jackson wrote in a retrospective on the report, 82 black lawyers were admitted to the bar. In the previous 25 years, just 83 black lawyers had been admitted.

Dr. Liacouras recruited Carl Singley, a promising young graduate of Talladega College, in 1968 as part of a group of 10 African American students who he hoped would help integrate Temple's law school.

Singley went on to become the school's dean from 1983 to 1987 - an opportunity he credited to Dr. Liacouras.

"He almost single-handedly changed the complexion of the law school," Singley said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of African American and Latino lawyers who are the beneficiaries of his efforts at integrating the school as well as the practice of law in this city."

As Temple's president, Dr. Liacouras recruited Molefi K. Asante to spearhead a Ph.D. program in the school's African American studies department. It was the country's first.

"Peter made history," Asante said. "He wanted the best, and we gave him the best."

Dr. Liacouras inherited a $4 million deficit and dismal enrollment figures when he took the helm. He set about overhauling the core curriculum and embarking on major construction, including the arena that now bears his name, residence halls, and more. He refused a push, early in his tenure, to move the campus to Ambler.

"He said, 'We're going to become part of the community,' " Asante recalled.

Dr. Liacouras built a new hospital and prided himself on hiring minority businesses to complete about 35 percent of the work. He commissioned a logo - the iconic Temple "T" - from the university's own art students, and worked to stock the campus with amenities that would draw students.

Jim Hilty, Temple's resident historian, who served as the dean of its Ambler campus and as Dr. Liacouras' assistant for years, recalled the president's fighting to get an on-campus bar approved early in his tenure.

"We knew one of the things students wanted was beer. It's essential to undergraduate life," he said, laughing. "The students needed a place to hang, a place that would endear the place to them and keep them there."

Under Dr. Liacouras, Temple spent more than $900 million on capital projects and increased the number of students and staff living within a few blocks of the main campus by 200 percent, the university said.

"Peter was a man of vision and determination," Neil D. Theobald, the school's current president, wrote in a statement. He added: "There is no doubt in my mind that he laid the groundwork for the nationally respected university that Temple is today."

The impact of Temple's revitalization under Dr. Liacouras was felt beyond the campus' borders, said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor.

"He was tremendously good for Temple, but he also was great for Philadelphia," Rendell said.

Dr. Liacouras' hiring of John Chaney, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, who would lead the Owls to 17 NCAA tournament appearances, is viewed as a highlight of his tenure.

"When a team is successful, it gains respect and gains visibility on television, and that's what we sought to do," Chaney said. As Temple rose in prominence, enrollment soared and the school began to attract better students.

Dr. Liacouras' tenure was not without controversy. His decision in the 1990s to heavily recruit students from the suburbs was met with criticism in some circles. Though the plan bumped freshman enrollment by 20 percent in one year, critics said the plan stood at odds with the university's tradition of educating city students.

Twice during his tenure, the faculty went on strike.

"To say he was controversial is putting it mildly," said Arthur Hochner, the longtime head of Temple's faculty union.

The union handed Liacouras "no confidence" votes twice, Hochner said, both following the strikes: 21 days in 1986 and 29 in 1990.

"My recollection of him was that he wanted to move Temple in the direction he thought was right, and he encountered a lot of faculty opposition along the way," Hochner said, noting that many colleagues felt that while Dr. Liacouras wanted to raise Temple's profile, he was less concerned about its academics.

But following the 1990 strike, Hochner said, his relationship with Dr. Liacouras improved, as the president began to seek his opinion on university matters.

In its statement announcing his death, the university said that Dr. Liacouras launched schools, colleges and academic programs, including an honors program, and opened several law campuses abroad.

And he was intensely focused on building up the school's national reputation through academics or athletics, colleagues said. He was deeply interested in the school's sports teams, and wanted to get to know both athletes and other students. He would show up at basketball practices at 5 a.m.

When he announced his departure plans to the university's board of trustees, Dr. Liacouras attributed his long tenure to "the Temple Magic."

The university's mission, he said, "captured my heart, soul and intellect from my first encounter as a young law professor in 1963."

And long after his tenure ended, Dr. Liacouras remained involved in the university as a fan. A giant Temple banner covered a wall in his room at his nursing facility in Gladwyne. He only stopped going to games in his wheelchair in the last year.

In addition to his son, Dr. Liacouras is survived by his wife, Ann Myers Liacouras; daughter Lisa; sons Stephen and James; two sisters; three grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at the Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St., at 11 a.m. Friday, May 20.

Donations may be made to the Peter and Ann Liacouras Scholarship Fund, Temple University, P.O. Box 827651, Philadelphia, Pa. 19182.

awhelan@philly.com610-313-8112

@aubreyjwhelan

Contributing to this article were staff writers David Sell, Sam Wood, Martha Woodall, Jeremy Roebuck, and Mike Jensen.