JoAnne A. Epps, the acting president of Temple University in Philadelphia whose tenure came at a turbulent time for the school, died on Tuesday after becoming ill onstage at a memorial service, the university said.
“There are no words that can describe the gravity and sadness of this loss,” the university said in a letter that was signed by the chair of the board of trustees, the chief operating officer and the provost. “President Epps was a devoted servant and friend who represented the best parts of Temple.”
The university did not share the cause of death.
Ms. Epps was attending a memorial service on Tuesday for Charles L. Blockson, a historian, author and curator of the Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple, which houses more than 500,000 artifacts relating to the global Black experience. Mr. Blockson died in June at 89.
Footage from a live feed of the memorial service that was later removed from Temple’s website showed a choir singing behind a row of chairs that had been set up on the stage. Ms. Epps appeared to slump in her chair as papers she was holding in her lap fell to the floor. People seated next to her noticed that she was in distress, and someone stepped to the lectern and asked for a doctor to come and help. The live feed then cut out for several minutes before the memorial service resumed.
Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania said on X, formerly Twitter, that Ms. Epps was “a powerful force and constant ambassador for Temple University” and that “losing her is heartbreaking for Philadelphia.”
“Speaking at Temple’s commencement earlier this year, I reiterated my strong belief in the university and its North Philly community,” Mr. Shapiro wrote. “They are tough and resilient, and I know they will come together and lift each other up in this devastating time.”
Mitchell L. Morgan, the chair of the Temple’s board of trustees, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Ms. Epps was “our light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ms. Epps had a been a member of Temple’s faculty for more than three decades. Before joining Temple, she was an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles.
Her death rattled a university community that was already facing several challenges. She was appointed after the resignation in March of the previous president, Jason Wingard, whose tenure was plagued by worsening crime around campus, a strike by graduate students and a loss of confidence in his leadership among some faculty members.
After Mr. Wingard’s resignation, Temple appeared eager for steady leadership, and Ms. Epps was seen as a leader who could calm the waters. Her deep ties to Temple reassured many on campus, and when she was appointed, she said in a statement that she would “engage with individuals and groups across the university to reinvigorate a culture of shared governance, listening and learning.”
Ms. Epps, a former executive vice president, provost and law school dean at Temple, was clear that her tenure would be temporary, telling The Inquirer that she would not be a candidate to serve in the position permanently.
“The university needs a president who it anticipates will have a long tenure,” she said, adding that she had planned to retire this year before she was asked to serve as acting president.
Her priorities, she told local news outlets, were addressing the twin crises facing Temple: campus safety and falling enrollment, an issue that other universities are also facing.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Temple Association of University Professionals said on X that its members were “deeply saddened” by the loss of “a true Temple icon.”
Temple’s student government association said in a statement that Ms. Epps had made “great strides for the university and always put students’ wants and needs first.”
Michael Levenson contributed reporting.