Posted April 28, 2014

President Theobald teaches—and learns from—Temple’s students

Joseph V. Labolito
President Neil D. Theobald set aside time each Monday to teach a yearlong freshman seminar, “Organizational Change at Temple University,” in Sullivan Hall.

Temple President Neil D. Theobald walked into his freshman seminar class ready to discuss fiscal planning, tuition and campus safety. As he walked out, he was promising to kiss a pig for a good cause.

The 22 students in Theobald’s yearlong course, Organizational Change at Temple University, are divided into groups that are each developing a plan to address an issue on campus, such as student health, dining services and resources for commuter students.

Since Connor Rattey of Takoma Park, Md., and his group have decided to address financial literacy, Rattey approached Theobald after a recent class and nervously asked the president to participate in a fundraising event for local schools to teach children about saving, investing and borrowing.

Kissing the pig? It is only a publicity stunt to get donations. But Theobald did not hesitate for a moment when he was asked to do it.

“Whatever you can do for a good cause,” he said. “And I think financial literacy is a fabulous cause.”

That willing-to-try-anything attitude is a hallmark of Theobald’s teaching. He started the recent class by having Dana Dawson, program director of scholar development and fellowships advising, speak to students about applying for fellowships. He followed that up with a presentation about university budgeting.

Then the president asked students to come up with their own ideas for closing a budget gap.

Through it all, Theobald—who began his education career as a secondary-school mathematics teacher—was active and enthusiastic. He cracked jokes and calculated percentages and multiplication in his head. He even asked students for help switching between PowerPoint slides.

“He teaches in a way that’s really open,” said Lydia Adnane, a neuroscience student from Doylestown, Pa. “He allows us to ask a lot of questions. He’s very open to discussion.”

He also uses the class as his own focus group. The students heard an early draft of his inauguration speech and gave feedback on his vision for the university. They also commented on his plans for what to say at Commencement next month.

“When you sit down and talk with students, that’s when you really get to learn,” he said after class. “I keep asking myself, “‘What do I need to know about what’s going on around here?’”

Despite his packed schedule, Theobald reserves an hour for class each Monday, plus time to meet with students and plan classes. One added benefit is being able to teach with his wife, Sheona Mackenzie, a school psychologist and the course’s designated “paper-grader.”

“It’s the one night a week I know I’ll get to see him,” Mackenzie said with a laugh.

For the students, the course is an opportunity to learn about the inner workings of Temple, straight from the president. Ameena Soliman, a business student from Yardley, Pa., said that each student has an individual meeting with Theobald and Mackenzie during the academic year.

“It was really cool to sit down with the president and tell him what I thought was going well on campus and what was not going so well,” she said. “He takes that into account when he’s making decisions.”

Theobald hopes the freshmen in the course will become a new cohort of campus leaders. In the coming years, he intends to ask them to participate in university task forces and committees. “I’ll know them, and they’ll know the issues,” he said.

However, as class drew to a close on that recent Monday evening, Theobald had a more immediate promise: “If you need me, I’ll be available throughout the week.”

Even if he has to kiss a pig.

—Ashwin Verghese, SMC ’08