Skip to Content

Role of Bill Cosby’s lawyer causing big problems for Temple University

7th Annual "Stand Up For Heroes" Event - Arrivals7th Annual "Stand Up For Heroes" Event - Arrivals
Bill CosbyPhotograph by Jemal Countess — Getty Images

For years, Temple University enjoyed a long association with its famous alum, Bill Cosby. From 1982 until last year, Cosby sat on the Board of Trustees and was an active fundraiser and booster of the school. But then Cosby’s career and legacy unraveled as dozens of women accused him of sexual assault, and Cosby resigned in December 2014.

At the time, the university released a simple statement: “The Board of Trustees accepts Dr. Cosby’s resignation from the board and thanks him for his service to the university.”

Now, that statement — and the university’s previously close ties with Cosby — have come under fire, as new questions are being raised about the role of one of Cosby’s lawyers, Patrick O’Connor, who also is chairman of Temple’s Board of Trustees. O’Connor defended Cosby, then a Temple trustee, against a lawsuit filed by a former Temple employee, even while he was serving as a trustee.

Last weekend the New York Times and Associated Press obtained and reported on the full transcript of Bill Cosby’s deposition from that 2005 civil suit in which Cosby was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women. Although Cosby denied having sex with women against their will, in the deposition, he depicted himself as “an unapologetic, cavalier playboy, someone who used a combination of fame, apparent concern and powerful sedatives in a calculated pursuit of young women,” the New York Times noted.

The disclosures have set off a firestorm at Temple — and raised new questions about his dual roles as both a university trustee and Cosby lawyer. “I was surprised like everybody else about the extent of admission by Cosby [about] all the women and his sexual adventures, to put it mildly,” said Arthur Hochner, an associate professor of human resource management at Temple’s business school and president of the full-time faculty union. “But what I was most concerned about was that the person who is the chairman of the board of trustees of Temple was his lawyer. Here is a case brought by a former Temple employee alleging that Cosby molested her.”

Additionally, faculty are raising questions about Temple’s public statements — or lack thereof. “This has been in the news for months and there’s just been silence. Most of the faculty have not seen the forthright statement about the kind of behavior Cosby’s been accused of that we’d like to see,” says history professor David Watt.

The faculty knew that O’Connor had been one of Cosby’s lawyers during the lawsuit and helped negotiate the confidential 2006 settlement with Andrea Constand, a former director of operations for Temple University’s women’s basketball team. But it wasn’t until early July 2015 that any details of his the star’s testimony were made public. The school was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

O’Connor didn’t respond to Fortune’s requests for comment. But in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he blasted the release of the depositions, saying it was an “outrage that the court processes weren’t followed here.” In a Tuesday filing, O’Connor and a fellow attorney, George Gowen, asked a judge to keep the settlement sealed; they attacked media reports and wrote 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.”

Temple University also released a statement late Tuesday, saying that “Mr. Connor’s representation of Mr. Cosby was disclosed and vetted in accordance with Board policy.” The statement quoted Temple president Neil Theobald as saying that “the highest standards of ethical behavior and the best interest of Temple have always guided the Chairman’s leadership and relationship to the University.”

Faculty members, meanwhile, complain that O’Connor’s dual role as trustee and Cosby lawyer sends a confusing message. “It’s tough for us in the faculty and for the students to tell when he’s speaking as a representative of Temple … or when he’s speaking as a zealous advocate for Bill Cosby or when he’s speaking just as a private citizen,” said Watt. “I’m afraid it’s made it harder for Temple to send this very clear message…that giving a person a drug and having sexual relations without her consent is a very serious crime.”

Temple University Associate Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications Ray Betzner emphasized to Fortune that Temple devotes many resources to make its policies on sexual assault clear to both students and staff, to help prevent cases of sexual assault, and to aid victims.

Regarding the release of the deposition, Temple President Neil Theobald said in a written statement released earlier in the week and sent to Fortune that the administration “knew nothing of the previously-sealed disclosures about Bill Cosby” and that, to its knowledge, “this deposition was subject to a confidentiality order and only those involved in the case were privy to its contents.”

Both Hochner and Watt said that there has been little student reaction, but attributed that to it being summer and between regular academic sessions.

O’Connor was the center of some controversy in December 2014. A reporter from Philadelphia Magazine reportedly called the lawyer in the wake of Cosby’s resignation from the board to ask about its demographics. “Of the 14 major public and private colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area that we examined, Temple’s board has the lowest percentage of female trustees, at nine percent, with just three women among the board of 35,” the magazine wrote.

O’Connor allegedly called the inquiry “freaking ridiculous” and “pathetic journalism.” According to the magazine, he said, “Three women, 24 board members … that’s one-eighth of the board. If Temple is the lowest with one-eighth, I can live with that.”

Following the report, O’Connor apologized for the remarks, according to The Temple News, the university’s student newspaper. “We are going through a difficult time at this university because of Mr. Cosby’s resignation, I should have been more temperate, and I apologize for that,” O’Connor reportedly said.