Temple’s moment

by pkerkstra on November 13, 2011

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 7, 2011.

Apologies to Penn and due respect to Drexel, but the most remarkable and encouraging local higher education story of the last 15 years has been the rebirth and reinvention of Temple University.

Encouraging because the forces behind Temple’s transformation bode extremely well for Philadelphia’s future. Remarkable because not that long ago, Temple was a pit.

Think back to the 1980s and early 1990s, when Philadelphia was in sharp decline. Temple was, too. Enrollment was low. The university was so starved for cash and kids that it welcomed even weak applicants. At night, the school had an abandoned air, as commuting students headed home before nightfall.

That Temple is long gone. Well-regarded university president Ann Weaver Hart, who announced last week that she will retire this academic year, leaves her successor a school that is full to bursting with students. The area is now alive around the clock, with an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 students living on or close to campus. Its academic reputation is improving, if not yet stellar, and the university has proved competitive in attracting top faculty.

“What people tell me is that over the last several years, Temple has become an increasingly central part of the economic, social and educational life of the city,” said Hart, who has said she is resigning to care for her ill mother, who lives in Utah.

To a point, Temple’s recovery can be credited to its faculty, staff, and past three presidents, starting with Peter Liacouras, who in the mid-1980s promoted the prophetic notion (ridiculed at the time) that Temple’s future was as a residential university. Liacouras’ successor, David Adamany, irritated professors with his exacting standards and imperious style, but he also obliterated the university’s long-standing acceptance of academic mediocrity. Hart calmed the waters and has helped the institution get a handle on its growth.

But for the most part, Temple’s transformation has been a bottom-up story, driven by a generation of students who wanted the gritty urban education that their parents and siblings feared and shunned.

“We’ve come to be more proud of our position in the city of Philadelphia and to really embrace it as a part of the life of a student at Temple University,” Hart said.

It’s not just Temple, of course. Millennials’ fondness for cities has been good for all urban schools. Temple has benefited more than most, welcoming students with high test scores and strong transcripts from suburban high schools who would not have considered the university in decades past.

Predictably enough, that cultural churn has generated tension on and off campus. That’s what happens when your student body becomes whiter, wealthier, and more suburban in just a few years. The resentments are fanned when that population moves en masse into the largely black and Latino neighborhoods surrounding Temple.

And yet, Temple’s spillover into an ever-widening circle of North Philadelphia has fueled huge private sector investment in neighborhoods that until recently were wastelands. The university that once seemed to be sinking along with the rest of North Philadelphia has become a source not just of stability, but also of dynamic residential and commercial growth. Because of Temple, it is no longer difficult to imagine Center City’s prosperity reaching well into North Philadelphia along the Broad Street corridor.

Even that, though, underestimates the impact Temple’s renewal has had on the city and the region.

For instance, Philadelphia’s role as a hub for research and medicine depends in part on Temple. The most economically dynamic regions in the country – Boston, the Bay Area, Chicago, the Research Triangle – typically claim two or more research-oriented universities, centers of learning that both generate elite workers and spin off start-up companies.

Penn is a research monster. Temple and Drexel, though, are second- or third-tier research institutions at best. In recent years, Temple’s research program has begun growing again after a long stretch of stagnancy and decline. The numbers are still far too small to move the regional economy, but at long last there’s reason for research optimism at Temple.

Still, Temple’s biggest contribution to the city is the thousands of undergraduate degrees it bestows each year. Temple grads are four times more likely to settle in the city or its suburbs than Penn grads. And nearly 20 percent of college-educated Philadelphians got their degrees at Temple. So for better or worse, the quality of the region’s workforce is heavily dependent on the quality of undergraduate education offered at Broad and Cecil B. Moore.

As Temple goes, so goes Philadelphia. And that makes the selection of Hart’s successor a high-stakes hire for the whole city.

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