Temple University community mourns acting president JoAnne Epps

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- JoAnne Epps, Temple University's beloved acting president, died on Tuesday, the university said. She was 72 years old.

Epps became ill during a memorial service at Temple for Charles L. Blockson, a curator of the Blockson Collection. She was then taken to Temple University Hospital for further treatment and pronounced dead at around 3:15 p.m., the university said. 

"She had an amazing ability to be the calming force in troubled waters and pull everyone together and was a pleasure to work for, made every day coming into work fun and was steering the Temple ship in the right direction," Ken Kaiser, the senior vice president and chief operating officer of Temple, said. "I think it's just a gut punch right now. It's hard."

Temple officials didn't disclose a cause for Epps' death. A doctor from Temple University Hospital said Epps, who first joined Temple's faculty in 1985, suffered a "sudden episode" during the event and resuscitation efforts weren't successful.

Gregory Mandel, the senior vice president and provost at Temple, said the Board of Trustees will meet on Wednesday to put together a plan as the university manages through the transition period.

The university will have a vigil at the Bell Tower at noon on Wednesday to honor Epps.

"We're all in deep grief and at a loss for words. We grieve for JoAnne's family, her friends and our Temple community," said Mandel, who was emotional during the news conference at Temple Hospital.

Mandel said after Epps' sudden passing, he started thinking of memories throughout his time on North Broad. He said Epps was a friend ever since he joined Temple's law faculty in 2007.

"We've worked together in several different capacities over the years," Mandel said. "She's been an extraordinary leader, she's been a mentor for me and many others, she's been a close confidant."

"President Epps represented the best part of the Temple community, devoting nearly 40 years of her life to supporting us, as my colleague Ken said in many different capacities," he added. "We will all get through this. The university has a spectacularly strong community and we will get through this together."

Epps didn't retire and went on to become Temple's acting president in April after Jason Wingard, the university's first Black president, resigned due to her "love for the university," Mandel said.

Epps, a Cheltenham, Pennsylvania native, had several roles at Temple. She was the dean of Temple Beasley School of Law from 2008-16 until she became the university's executive vice president and provost in 2016. Epps was eventually replaced by Mandel as the provost in 2021.

Epps was also an assistant U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia and a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles.

Before Temple named Epps acting president, Wingard's tenure was filled with criticisms from students, faculty and alumni as the university community dealt with crime around campus and the fatal shooting of Temple University Police Sgt. Christopher Fitzgerald.

Wingard's time at Temple lasted less than two years.

The Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP) authorized a vote of no confidence in March for the university's leadership at the end of Wingard's tenure.

Kaiser said "there was a collective sigh" when Epps stepped into the role as acting president.

"I think over last six months, you saw the entire university community pull together, despite all of the ups and downs Temple has faced over this time, everyone was healing and everyone felt great about Temple and happy for JoAnne," Kaiser said.

The university launched a national search for the president shortly after Epps stepped into the role.

After Epps' sudden death, condolences poured in over social media.

"JoAnne Epps was a powerful force and constant ambassador for Temple University for nearly four decades. Losing her is heartbreaking for Philadelphia," Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro posted on X. "May her memory be a blessing."

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also released a statement about Epps passing.

"Heartbroken by the sudden passing of @TempleUniv, Acting President JoAnne A. Epps," Kenney wrote on X. "She was a passionate and steadfast leader who inspired many. I feel fortunate to have known her. My heart is with the Temple community and JoAnne's family and loved ones."

TAUP released a statement in regards to Epps' sudden death:

"The Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP) is deeply saddened by the sudden and unexpected passing of Dr. JoAnne Epps. She was a true Temple icon, and her loss is a significant one for our university.

Throughout her career at Temple, many of us came to know her as a colleague and as a friend. Her tireless service to our school, as a member of the law school faculty, as Dean of the Beasley School of Law, and then as provost was remarkable. And, when she was ready to retire, she answered the call to serve as our Interim President.

"JoAnne's calming presence gave Temple a reset this spring when we needed it the most," notes Jeffrey Doshna, TAUP President. "I remember her walking into my office this April, and chatting with me one-on-one about how we could work together to make Temple a better place. That kind of personal approach makes her loss even more profound."

We extend our heartfelt condolences to the Epps family, and the entire Temple University community. As we all grapple with this loss, we honor her legacy by continuing to work to make Temple a more equitable place for all."

Cherelle Parker, the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia mayor, released a statement about Epps' passing:

"It is with a heavy heart that I write this, having learned of Professor Epps' sudden passing earlier today. The circumstances of her death are tragic, but it will not overshadow the life and legacy of a colossal figure.

"For many people across our city, our region, and our country, Professor Epps was a pioneer in her approach to law. For those of us who walk in the footsteps along the path cut by the Professor Epps of the world, she represented the dream many of us never thought was in reaching distance. Epps was a fierce advocate for women and minorities throughout her career, who saw herself as a vehicle to uplift the students who passed through her classroom. In recognition of her work, she was awarded the 2015 Spirit of Excellence Award by the American Bar Association, the 2015 M. Ashley Dickerson Award by the National Association of Women Lawyers, and the 2014 Justice Sonia Sotomayor Diversity Award by the Philadelphia Bar Association, to name a few.

"With this news coming on the heels of the passing of another indomitable figure, Dr. Constance E. Clayton, I know many of us are feeling a heavy sense of loss today. There are no words of mine that could possibly lessen the grief that all of the people she touched are feeling, nor can my words do justice to the legacy of this remarkable Black woman. So I will call upon the words of Maya Angelou:

"And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed."

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