Controversy University: Temple faces unhappy donors in wake of a contentious year

Several high-level donors are rethinking their donations due to national scandals clogging the narrative about Temple.

This week, rooms and offices across Temple University made possible by donors are tagged with the names of their benefactors. It’s a symbol of Temple’s third annual Philanthropy Week, which highlights donor impact on student experience and catalyzes more giving.  

But internally, the university is still appraising the impact of public controversies suffered over the past year, and top officials brew over potential donation losses. 

The world turned its eye to Main Campus as multiple schools were tainted by controversies. In July, an independent report found that the Fox School of Business reported false data for years to the U.S. News & World Report. Most recently, professor Marc Lamont Hill sparked national outcry with his United Nations speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Nov. 28, 2018.

The controversies have left some donors feeling like their dollars are under a microscope. Some expressed they’re apprehensive to give again or confirmed they’re considering retracting promised gifts due to constant scandals plaguing Temple’s image. Others say that the incidents don’t weather Temple’s quality, and they’ll remain financially committed.

A university spokesperson said the financial impact of both scandals will not be clear for “months and years to come.” 

“One more headline risk or legal risk with Temple, I’m withdrawing my promise gift,” said alumna Ronnyjane Goldsmith, who has agreed to donate $2 million to the university at the time of her death. 

“I can’t ignore the continuing headline and legal risk,” she added. “The way it was handled, the fallout and bad press has had an enormous negative effect on current and future donors.”

Response from the top down

The university responded quickly to both controversies with public statements  — though none were enough to appease some concerned alumni.

Internal and external investigations into Fox led Temple to fire former Dean Moshe Porat, who led the school for 22 years. An internal Jones Day investigation released in July found that he facilitated Fox’s data falsification. Ongoing federal and state investigations into the scandal are likely to take years.

“Failures are a chance to improve, to grow, to become something greater than before. Temple is doing just that,” read one statement signed by Provost JoAnne Epps, President Richard Englert and Board of Trustees Chairman Patrick O’Connor. 

But a university official had never blamed one individual for Temple’s public embarrassment — until the Hill controversy. 

Two days after Hill’s UN speech, O’Connor told the Inquirer the remarks were “lamentable” and “disgusting.” Many interpreted Hill’s speech as anti-Semitic because he called for Palestinian liberation “from the river to the sea,” a phrase sometimes used by Hamas, a militant Palestinian nationalist group.

O’Connor told The Temple News the Hill controversy caused “immeasurable” harm to Temple’s donations, but noted it’s impossible to quantify the impact until the 2018 endowment is finalized. 

The Fox and Hill incidents both impacted the university’s reputation, university spokesperson Ray Betzner said in a statement to The Temple News. 

“In both cases, we have heard from individuals who have said they will not support the university in the future as a result of these issues,” he added. “…While controversies arise that may impact contributions from time to time, in the long run the quality of the Temple experience is what makes the difference in terms of alumni support.”


Two alumni donors interviewed by The Temple News promised the university roughly $3 million combined, and both are seriously considering retracting their funds. Another alumnus put a more than $1 million gift to the Fox School on hold once the data falsification scandal began to unfold. 

Others who have given significantly smaller sums over the course of decades are also considering ceasing financial support. Several alumni, however, remain committed to supporting the university while vocalizing their dismay over the Fox School and/or Hill controversies, among others, like the university’s dealings for a proposed on-campus stadium.

Goldsmith, a three-time Temple alumna, promised to give a gift of about $2 million at the time of her death. Goldsmith has endowed other funds at the university, including the College of Liberal Art’s SIG Scholarship, an annual need- and merit-based award.

Goldsmith was disappointed by the university’s plans to build an on-campus football stadium in North Philadelphia and the 2014 cuts to five Temple Athletics programs, she said. But Hill’s “reprehensible” remarks and him remaining a professor stand as the most problematic issues for Goldsmith.

If there’s another highly publicized misstep by Temple, she’s withdrawing her millions in donations, Goldsmith said.

Her colleagues and friends are amazed she has remained such a public supporter of the university, she added.

“My generation is the one that should be making contributions to the university right now, and they don’t want to,” Goldsmith said. “Every time I get to the point where I turn their minds around because of something positive that happens, something that’s not positive happens.”

Bart Blatstein is a 1976 College of Liberal Arts alumnus and president and CEO of Tower Investments, a Philadelphia-based private company that has built properties near Main Campus and in Northern Liberties. Blatstein pledged to give a $1 million gift, half of which will be taken from his estate when he dies. But he may discontinue the agreement “sooner rather than later,” he said.

Blatstein, who is Jewish, said action needs to be taken against Hill for him to change his mind about his donation. He said vested donors can “vote with their pocketbook.” 

“Between the Bill Cosby issue…Marc Lamont Hill, the revolving door of presidents and the business school scandal, it’s enough,” Blatstein said.  

The Fox scandal caused Raza Bokhari to postpone his decision of whether to make a $1 million pledge to the business school in 2018. The data falsification scandal was overdramatized, he said, but he was disappointed by how the university treated Porat, who is one of his close friends. 

“I think there was dramatic and drastic actions taken that were abrupt,” said Bokhari, a 2001 executive MBA alumnus. “Any time that actions are taken without taking stakeholders into confidence, it is an intuitive reaction to pause. I have paused.”

As an alumnus, Bokhari has contributed administrative and financial support to Fox. In honor of a $1 million gift he made in 2007, the suite housing Fox’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute bears his name. He currently chairs the school’s Dean’s Council, which meets annually to advise Fox’s leadership. 

Bob Russell, a 1974 sociology alumnus, estimates he’s donated roughly $100 to the university about a dozen times over the past 40 years. Russell said Hill’s comments “painted a negative connotation about what [Temple] stood for” and could cause him to consider stopping his donations.

Other alumni, like Roxanne Zhilo, a 2011 strategic and organizational communications alumna, believe it’s important for concerned Jewish alumni not to cut ties with the university and maintain their influence. Zhilo has donated to on-campus Jewish organizations, but not directly to Temple. 

“You should stand your ground, use your voice, present your side, speak intelligently and plan strategically,” said Zhilo, the co-president of Chabad at Temple’s Alumni Board. “Work to make things better for yourself in the community. Don’t just abandon ship.”

Michael Adler, a 1998 Beasley School of Law alumnus, will also continue with his regular donation plans to annually give to the university and law school. Since graduating, he’s been involved with the Temple Alumni Association and the Temple Law Alumni Association, which he led from 2009-11.

Adler felt the university didn’t handle the Hill controversy quickly enough, allowing it to brew in the media. 

“When one of us does something bad…or if the university itself can’t get out from under an issue, that reflects poorly on all of us as a family,” he added.

Teresa Lundy, a 2014 media studies and production alumna, said O’Connor’s statements claiming alumni are incensed by the Hill controversy do not reflect what she’s seen as a board member for Klein’s Alumni Association.

To Lundy’s knowledge, the alumni association did not hear from any graduates concerned about the Hill controversy, and none expressed hesitation that they’d donate again. Lundy thinks the exact opposite of O’Connor’s suggestion.

“We’ve been getting new individuals who want to be a part of the alumni chapter, so if anything, it’s been improving our attendance,” she said.

“From where I’m sitting, the response was ideal,” she added. “…The feeling is, ‘Listen, Temple did the right thing. How do we respond and how do we continue to support?’”

James Sanders, the president of the Fox School of Business Alumni Association, received emails, phone calls and social media messages from alumni reacting to reports about the school’s data falsification. Still, he expects most donors will maintain their commitments to the university, he said. 

“The university is not going down,” said Sanders, a 2012 executive MBA alumnus. “There have been issues in the past that have occurred, and Temple and Fox has gotten through those issues, so it will, it has and it is making us stronger.” 

Sam Hodge — a fellow in the Fox Conwell Club, meaning he’s donated between $10,000 and $24,999 to Temple — said neither the Hill nor Fox controversy impacted his willingness to contribute. In both situations, the university was decisive and immediately delivered a response, said Hodge, a legal studies professor.

It’s not likely that many donors will be discouraged from supporting the university due to controversy, several alumni said. 

A quote by Russell Conwell, etched onto the side of Sullivan Hall, reads, “Greatness really consists in doing some great deed with little means.” | DYLAN LONG / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Trustee claims

In December, O’Connor told The Temple News he received up to 50 emails every day from donors from “alums, professors, students, friends of Israel, politicians, young, old, Black, white,” promising to withdraw financial support if Hill, an urban education and media studies and production professor, was not fired. 

Now, O’Connor receives about five emails from alumni withdrawing money specifically due to Hill’s comments per day, O’Connor said in January. He doesn’t know if many emails came from the same sender or how much money donors have threatened to withhold. O’Connor erases the emails after reading them, he said, “because [his] little iPhone can’t hold all those things.”

Still, he maintained that it would have noticeable effect on Temple’s financial resources. 

“We’re a vulnerable institution, we don’t have a huge endowment,” O’Connor said. “It affects what we can do for students.” 

In April 2016, the university shifted its focus from its annual state appropriation and tuition to donors to fund its endowment, The Temple News reported. Potential donors aren’t going to be as “all ears” as they were in the past when the university made its case for funding, O’Connor said. 

Historically, Temple receives a smaller appropriation than Pennsylvania’s other state-related schools. 

The endowment, however, has increased each year since 2013. In 2017, it reached $615.4 million, according to the U.S. News & World Report.  The 36 voting members of the Board of  Trustees released a unanimous statement of condemnation of Hill’s remarks at their Dec. 11, 2018 meeting. 

Fox is already able to put a price tag of more than $5.4 million on the data misreporting scandal. In December, the university settled a civil lawsuit from former Fox students, which included Temple’s creation of a $5,000 scholarship for students interested in ethics and enrolled in one of the programs represented in the suit. The settlement will be covered by existing insurance coverages and reserves, a university spokesperson told The Temple News in December. He could not specify if tuition dollars will contribute to paying off these costs.

The U.S. Department of Education and the state Attorney General’s office continue to investigate the damage of the Fox’s self-misrepresentation, which could cost the university millions. 

As the investigations continue, O’Connor ascertained that all Board members received emails similar to those in his inbox. Two trustees interviewed by The Temple News said they’ve never received such messages from alumni or past donors, while two others confirmed they have.

Three of the 19 trustees The Temple News attempted to interview for this story declined to comment. Eleven others did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

There are two types of costs the university will incur as a result of the Hill controversy and other public debacles, trustee Lewis Gould said: financial, and “reputational injury to the university.”

“I’ve been a trustee at the university since 1985, a long time,” Gould said. “And I have many friends where I live, where I work, who are very familiar with my role as a university trustee. Let’s just say they have not been shy in sharing with me their great disappointment…at what has happened to the university.”

Gould said he received emails about the Hill controversy, but he does not recall receiving any regarding Fox’s data misreporting scandal. Trustee Marina Kats maintains she received emails from “hundreds” of alumni about the Hill controversy, and they’re still “going strong.” 

Trustee Steve Charles has never condemned Hill. He said the donors making the most noise “haven’t given that much anyway.” 

“We want to reemphasize the university’s commitment to free thought and free speech and the action that we took in our statement, we stand behind that,” Charles said. “…We feel we did exactly the right thing.”

Hill is the first Steve Charles Chair in Media, Cities and Solutions. Charles donated $2 million to create the position in Klein, which is the first donor-endowed chair in the school’s history.

Most of the trustees interviewed by The Temple News for this story said ideally, Hill should have been disciplined in some way by the university. But the Board does not have that power, O’Connor said in December. 

At the Board’s last meeting, Englert affirmed that Hill was not speaking as a university representative at the time of his comments. This absolved him of potential reprimand because the university’s faculty contract states professors are free from discipline as private citizens.

Most of all, the First Amendment protects Hill’s right to freedom of speech regardless of public backlash, said Sarah McLaughlin, a senior program officer in legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates for students and professors’ rights on college campuses. 

“The First Amendment is a non-negotiable duty for a university like Temple,” McLaughlin said. “There are going to be donors who want all kinds of professors fired or students expelled for what they believe and what they say. If Temple gave in to every donor demand, it would be a pretty quiet campus.”

The university still has a responsibility to hold public conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Charles said. He said the university is planning a two-day conference about the political issue in April. 

“I’m trying to get to the root cause of what this issue is all about and encourage the university to be the container and facilitator of robust dialogue,” Charles said. “If the university did more of that, there would be more understanding across these great divides instead of debate about whether someone will put Temple in his will.” 

Regardless of university action, time is all that can tell the impact this year’s controversies will have on Temple’s donation pool. There’s still a lot at the university worth funding, O’Connor said. 

“So much has happened at Temple, and it’s such a great institution,” he said. 

O’Connor added that the university doesn’t get enough recognition. 

“But that may be for the next chairman to deal with,” finished O’Connor, who will step down from his role as chairman on July 31. 

The Temple News reached out to the following people, who did not comment for this story:

  • Marc Lamont Hill did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
  • Jim Cawley, the vice president of Institutional Advancement, declined to comment for this story. The Office of Institutional Advancement would be the agency tracking the financial impact of the year’s past controversies, O’Connor said.
  • Fox Interim Dean Ronald Anderson could not immediately be reached for this story.
  • David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication declined to comment.
  • A representative who oversees alumni giving at Klein, where Hill holds his endowed chair position, declined to comment.
  • A university staff member who oversees Fox’s alumni giving did not respond to a request for comment.

Words and reporting by Grace Shallow.
Graphics and data analysis by Julie Christie.
Photos by Dylan Long.
Web Page produced by Julie Christie.

This article was first published Feb. 12, 2019.