Public hearing on Penn State reforms elicits support for changes

mdawson@centredaily.comJuly 18, 2013 

— Penn State alumnus Mark Kristobak, clad in a Penn State golf shirt and flipflops bearing a Nittany Lions logo, stepped up to the podium, looked out at several members of the board of trustees, and singled out Anthony Lubrano.

“You represent the alumni out there, and I want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing,” said Kristobak, a State College resident, Wednesday night.

Kristobak made perhaps the briefest comments Wednesday during what was a two-hour public session with five trustees and the state lawmaker who’s trying to rally support for his Penn State reform bills that are languishing in a committee. But despite being brief, Kristobak captured the essence of the public session, which saw strong support for changes at Penn State with the always vocal Lubrano as the centerpiece of the reform movement.

Fifteen people offered up their input in the session organized by state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Philipsburg, as a way for him to learn what everyday people want to see happen at Penn State. And for the trustees who attended — including board Chairman Keith Masser and board Vice Chairman Paul Silvis — it was a rare opportunity to talk with Penn State alumni and fans who have questioned their decisionmaking.

Conklin’s proposed legislation — House bills 299, 310, 311 and 312 — would reduce the size of the board to 22 members, subject Penn State and all state-related universities to open-records laws, among other reforms. But Conklin said the “window of opportunity” to move the bills on is closing, and he encouraged the nearly 70 people in attendance to take up the cause.

Also sitting with the trustees and Conklin was former state auditor general Jack Wagner, whose governance and reform recommendations are similar to the reforms Conklin is pitching.

Penn State’s board has already implemented reforms, such as expanding a trustee conflict of interest policy, setting 12-year term limits that take effect upon election and raising the number of trustees required in attendance for a quorum from 13 to 16. But critics, such as Lubrano, maintain that the reforms do not go far enough.

“The road has been difficult, but important feedback indicates we’re on the right track,” Masser said.

“I’ve always believed that the vast majority of the Penn State community wants and deserves to move forward in a constructive and positive way. Let me assure all of you that our priority, our passion and our responsibility as a board are to Penn State’s 96,000 students, 600,000 active alumni and 24,000 faculty and staff.”

Wagner credited the university for taking strides, but he said “much more needs to be done.” He touted his recommendations as ways to strengthen the university and not look back on who did what or not, as the Freeh report does.

The comments from the people in the crowd covered such intricacies of the reform movement that it would suggest they put great thought and emotion into what they were going to say. One man ran down a detailed list of how he would break down the selection of the trustees, and another woman lamented that the luster is gone from Happy Valley, though the community so desperately needs it back.

And, as it might be expected in a Penn State forum, people were eager to bring up the issues of Joe Paterno’s firing or even the hiring of David Joyner as athletic director after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. It was Lubrano, as evidence he was in command, who said the reform hearing was not the time and place for a discussion of those wider issues.

Below is a rundown of some of the comments. The full session will air at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday on PCN.

Sandy Deveney, of Potter Township, said some board actions, such as returned letters to them or the screening done for people who wish to speak at the board’s public comment session, would suggest they are not interested in what the alumni base has to say.

Another alumnus, Thomas Kupchinsky, of State College, said the board’s size, which stands at 30 voting members after the president’s and governor’s capacities were removed, is “way bloated.” He said the executive committee, which includes the board’s officers and the leaders of the committees, among others, should be dismantled immediately and said an important and consequential document like the NCAA’s consent decree, which authorized sanctions on Penn State, should have been taken up by the trustees.

Lubrano said some of the issues would be solved with a board that is “fully engaged.” Masser later said the size of the board is an issue that continues to be the subject of discussion.

Masser, a day removed from telling USA Today that the Freeh report’s conclusions were “speculation,” said the best way for people to interact with the board and make their feelings known is by attending committee meetings.

Ben Novak, a former trustee who ran unsuccessfully for a seat this spring, said he didn’t think the reforms would change the power structure of the university. He said that was tied into the president’s position and the trustees. His suggestion was to decentralize the powers from Old Main.

Some commenters were critical of the way trustees are selected, such as the secret elections of those to represent business and industry interests and those appointed because of their positions, such as the state secretaries of education, agriculture and conservation and natural resources.

Penn State student Spencer Malloy proposed a solution: the creation of an independent advisory board that would be charged with selecting trustees. It wouldn’t apply to all trustee seats, said Malloy, who served as the chairman of the campus’s undergraduate student government association.

Some comments elicited laughter, such as when Diane Gregg, who said she was on the board as the president of the graduate student association years ago, questioned if emeritus trustees could be subject to the same term limits. No one wanted to touch that question.

Ben Bronstein said he agreed with almost every suggestion, but he turned the tables on Conklin. He said if lawmakers want to subject Penn State trustees to 12-year term limits without being grandfathered in, then the same should apply to the legislature.

“While we’re calling on Penn State to be more transparent, as we should be, I’d like to see our legislature do the same thing,” he said.

Conklin agreed, saying lawmakers have gotten complacent after the wake-up call from years ago.

Silvis told the crowd in his closing remarks that the university wants to focus on positive developments and not dwell on the negative moments. He said the latter was the case on Tuesday when he and other trustees met with USA Today staff, who wanted to talk about the Freeh report and wrote about Masser’s comments.

“They just keep want to pull you back on the past,” he said.

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