Posted May 10, 2023

Acting President Epps discusses life and leadership during Chat in the Stacks event at Charles Library

Acting President Epps joined Associate Professor Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon for a wide-ranging discussion spanning Epps’ educational and professional journey and her hopes for the Temple community.

President Epps and Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon talking
Photography By: 
Eric Lovett
Epps' career at Temple began when she worked at the bookstore as a teenager.

During an installment of Temple University Libraries’ long-running Chat in the Stacks discussion series on April 27, acting President JoAnne A. Epps participated in a candid, upbeat conversation about transformational events during her education and professional life and her plans for Temple as she takes on the university’s highest leadership position.

The program was presented by Temple University Libraries and the Faculty Senate Committee on the Status of Faculty of Color. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Faculty Senate president and associate professor of theater studies and playwriting in the School of Theater, Film and Media Arts, moderated the event.

Williams-Witherspoon interviewed Epps about her trajectory, from growing up in a predominantly white and Jewish community in Cheltenham Township, to dean of Temple’s Beasley School of Law, to university provost and now acting president.

Epps talked about the positive influence of her parents and her elementary school teacher Mrs. Becker, who was one of the first people who really believed in her. As a teen Epps worked at the Temple bookstore, which she describes as one of her favorite jobs of all time. “What I loved best about it was that every day I met new people,” Epps said.

Inspired by her mother’s job as a secretary at Temple as well as the TV series Perry Mason, Epps set her sights on a career as a secretary to an attorney. “I was in the first class of women in my college,” Epps said. “We were making our way in a place that wasn’t familiar.”

When she announced she was dropping out of Trinity College after her sophomore year to learn typing and shorthand, the dean of students asked Epps if she had ever thought about becoming an attorney herself. It was the first time that career path occurred to Epps, and she decided to stay and finish her undergraduate degree. “If it hadn’t been for that man, I would not be sitting here today,” Epps said.

Epps went on to study at Yale Law School. While her law degree “flung open doors,” Epps did not always have an easy path. As one of eight Black women in her class she found law school to be difficult and unwelcoming. One of Epps’ lowest points was when she did not receive a job offer after a summer associateship at a Philadelphia firm. Instead, Epps went on to work as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles, which kicked off her successful career as a trial lawyer.

Now, after more than three decades as a Temple professor, Epps has taught her final law school course this semester. She was moved when she received hugs from her students at the end of their last class session together. “I’d like the thing that they remember most to be that I actually care about them,” Epps said.

As acting president of Temple University, Epps said that her top priorities are enrollment and safety, and she will focus on strengthening and building on existing community outreach and partnerships.

“I think that Temple University is an incredibly special place,” she said, noting that faculty members who leave Temple tend to really miss their students and the “transformation of lives” that happens when students say, “I never thought I could, but now I know I can.”

About 80 people attended the Chat in the Stacks program in person and virtually. James Donio, KLN ’77, an adjunct professor, said he came to the event to hear more about the direction Epps will take Temple after recent events at the university. 

Jeanne Chavious, retired manager of patient services at Fox Chase Cancer Center, said she knows Temple is well-served with Epps at the helm. “I’m very excited to congratulate President Epps as the first minority woman president of Temple University,” said Chavious. “She has always been committed to doing the best for Temple and supporting the community.”

During the program, Epps emphasized that she had been blessed by people who saw potential in her and changed the course of her life in unexpected ways. She wants Temple students to have similar exposure to such opportunities, and she encouraged them to dream big.

“What I want our students to know is that they have to not limit themselves,” Epps said. “There will be things you try to do, and someone will choose another person, or a door won’t open that you wished. But you ought to believe you deserve to be on the other side of that door and then figure out what you have to do to get there.”

A recording of acting President Epps’ interview during the Chat in the Stacks event is available on the Temple University Libaries’ website.

- Wendy Ramunno