For decades, comedian Bill Cosby was the very public face of Temple University, an alumnus promoting the school and its mission. He wore his Temple t-shirt on his popular TV show, routinely spoke at the school’s commencement ceremonies and hosted a convocation class for freshmen: “Cosby 101.”
This winter, after numerous women accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting them, Cosby resigned from Temple’s Board of Trustees.
Cosby has never admitted sexually assaulting a woman, nor has he been criminally charged. But in the wake of more recent revelations — his statements during a deposition a decade ago describing how he got drugs to offer to women — some at Temple are asking about another member of the school’s board: Its chairman, Patrick J. O’Connor, who represents Cosby in the case.
“I think he should step down,” said Arthur Hochner, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals and an associate professor of human resource management at the Fox School of Business and Management. He read about the deposition over the weekend, he said, and that’s when he learned that O’Connor was serving as Cosby’s lawyer.
“I was very concerned, because the case that was brought was by a former Temple employee charging he [Cosby] was molesting her while he was a trustee. That’s disturbing enough. But the current chair of the board, who was also on the board then, is the attorney for the defendant? I just couldn’t believe this conflict. Who was O’Connor representing — Temple University, or Bill Cosby? How could he represent the interest of Cosby and Temple and an ex-employee at the same time? It seemed like a major conflict.”
O’Connor did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
“This is just a real challenge for us,” as a university, said David Watt, a professor of history. “For better or ill, Temple decided to tie itself to Cosby, and he really was our public face. … This is just a mess.
“As a very practical problem,” Watt said, referring to O’Connor’s remarks about drug use and sex, “when O’Connor comments on Cosby’s behavior, it’s hard to tell if what he’s saying is, ‘I, Patrick O’Connor, as a private citizen want to say these things,’ or, ‘I, Patrick O’Connor, zealous attorney working on behalf of my client want to say this,’ or, ‘I, Patrick O’Connor, working as chairman of the board of Temple University … .'”
It’s complex, said Charles Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. “You have someone who has found himself caught betwixt and between fiduciary duties: to the client, and to the university on whose board they serve. He has an obligation to his client. He also has an obligation to the university. It’s a very difficult situation to be in: Does the controversy, and his continued presence, harm the university?”
O’Connor had already raised some eyebrows at the school, after a reporter at Philadelphia Magazine wrote that, when asked about whether the Temple board should have more female trustees, he responded with an expletive saying he was tired of the question and asking if the reporter was an imbecile. O’Connor later apologized for the remarks, saying the board had been under stress at the time because of Cosby’s resignation, according to the student newspaper, the Temple News.
The previous year, a reporter at the student paper wrote that he was taken aback when he called O’Connor for a story about another trustee whom he had been trying unsuccessfully to reach, asking for help contacting him, and the chairman of the board responded with profanity and said: “Like I’m your secretary? Would you like a sandwich, too?”
The controversy over O’Connor’s role flared after a decade-old deposition of Cosby recently became public.
Cosby was answering questions in a 2005 lawsuit alleging sexual assault filed by Andrea Constand, a former basketball operations manager at Temple University, over an incident she said occurred at Cosby’s home in Cheltenham in 2004. Constand alleged that Cosby offered her pills that she said he described as herbal medication to help her relax, but that she came to believe later were a more powerful drug because of the effect the pills had on her, court files show.
Cosby said in his deposition that the pill he gave her was a Benadryl.
O’Connor has represented Cosby in that case. The case was settled, and the deposition did not become public until reports this month by the Associated Press and the New York Times. The Washington Post purchased a copy of the full deposition transcript from the court reporter.
Cosby’s deposition revealed details of other sexual encounters with various women and his acknowledgement that he acquired Quaaludes to offer during encounters. In court filings O’Connor entered this week after the deposition became public, the lawyer said that Cosby “admitted to nothing more than being one of the many people who introduced Quaaludes into their consensual sex life in the 1970’s.”
When faculty members, reporters, and others began questioning whether O’Connor had a potential conflict of interest between his role on the board and his representation of Cosby, a spokesman for Temple responded: “Trustees are subject to a long-standing policy of the Board requiring regular disclosure of situations involving a potential conflict of interest. Mr. O’Connor’s representation of Mr. Cosby was disclosed and vetted in accordance with Board policy.
“Moreover, we are advised by his firm that Mr. O’Connor’s representation was concluded with the settlement of the civil suit entered into in 2006, and was re-initiated only in early 2015 in connection with a challenge to the confidentiality of that settlement agreement.”
The president and a former chairman of the board, Trustee Daniel Polett, defended O’Connor. “Patrick O’Connor has served as a Temple trustee for more than 27 years, giving generously of his time, wisdom and resources to an institution and a mission that he holds near and dear,” Polett wrote in a statement.
“When he succeeded me as Chairman of the Board in 2009, I said that I was confident that the University was in good hands, and our experience over the past six years has made it clear that confidence was well-placed.
“Patrick has provided steady and strong leadership as Temple has risen in stature in Philadelphia and the nation.”
President Neil D. Theobald said in a statement that in his two and a half years at Temple, “Chairman O’Connor has ably led the Board and the University in connection with numerous strategic initiatives, including Flyin4, the Temple Option, and the Visualize Temple master planning effort. In my experience, the highest standards of ethical behavior and the best interest of Temple have always guided the Chairman’s leadership and relationship to the University.”
Much of Cosby’s philanthropic work has been focused on higher education, and he has had strong relationships with universities across the country. But his profile with Temple was particularly high.
Cosby resigned from the Temple board in December. Cosby has been publicly accused of sexual assault by more than 40 women, with allegations that date to the 1960s. Many of those women say he drugged them.
Cosby has never admitted to sexual assault or been charged with crimes related to the allegations.
At the time he resigned from the Temple board, Cosby said, “I have always been proud of my association with Temple University.”
Cosby’s statement on his resignation continued: “I have always wanted to do what would be in the best interests of the university and its students. As a result, I have tendered my resignation from the Temple University Board of Trustees.”
Some faculty members asked what role and what voice, if any, O’Connor had in Cosby’s resignation.
“The ultimate question now is how damaging is this to the university on whose board you sit?,” Elson said. “Can you be an effective trustee given this controversy? Does it harm the university? That’s going to be his choice.”