Former law school dean, known for ensuring 'people were treated equitably,' dies after attending university event

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JoAnn Eps

JoAnne Epps, a former Temple University law school dean and provost, poses for a portrait on the Temple University campus in Philadelphia in April. Epps, acting president of Temple University, has died after collapsing at a university memorial service Sept. 19. Photo by Monica Herndon/The Philadelphia Inquirer via the Associated Press.

JoAnne Epps, the acting president of Temple University and its former law school dean, died Wednesday after becoming ill at a campus memorial service. She was 72 years old.

Her death was announced in a Sept. 19 University news release.

“I’m devastated to lose her and comforted only by knowing she was in action for her beloved Temple University to her last breath,” said Kellye Testy, president and chief executive officer of the Law School Admission Council, in email to the ABA Journal.

Kevin Harden, a Philadelphia trial lawyer, met Epps in 2007, around the time that he enrolled at the Temple University Beasley School of Law. He was a recent victim of gun violence, his mother died the week that he started law school, and his father died while Harden was in law school.

He was also a self-described “juvenile delinquent.”

“I was very ashamed about my past. She was the person who told me to, ‘lean into it.’ It would make me a better person; it would make me more empathetic,” says Harden, a former prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office who later did civil defense work with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott and is now a plaintiff personal injury lawyer with Ross Feller Casey.

Epps was born in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, and her mother worked as a secretary at the university, according to Temple News. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College and graduated from Yale Law School, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported.

Following jobs as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles, Epps joined the Temple University Beasley School of Law as a professor in 1985. She was the law school’s associate dean of academic affairs and was the dean from 2008 to 2016, WHYY reports. After that, Epps was appointed as the university’s executive vice president and provost. In April, she agreed to be Temple Univerity’s acting president.

Also in 2016, Epps received the ABA’s Spirit of Excellence Award. She was a member of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section and the Litigation Section, the Senior Lawyers Division and the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

Epps knew what it was like to be the “first person” of her race and gender in the room, Harden says, and it was important to her that others didn’t feel that way.

“She was someone who made sure people were treated equitably, with integrity. She would advocate for you, and she always encouraged you,” he adds.

According to the New York Times, Epps became ill during a Tuesday university memorial service for Charles L. Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.

“She always showed up for students, faculty and lawyers in Philadelphia—and by extension, for the clients lawyers serve. It’s extremely difficult to imagine this community without JoAnne Epps in it,” Daniel Filler, the dean of the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, told the Journal in an email.

Epps is survived by her husband, L. Harrison Jay, who is Temple University’s director of community partnerships.

Epps also was on the bar admissions committee for the ABA’s Legal Ed Section.

“Always patient, thoughtful and insightful, she was an accomplished scholar and leader in legal education who was respected and admired by her peers and colleagues. She will be missed by all of us,” Bill Adams, managing director for ABA accreditation and legal education, told the Journal in an email.

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