Penn State trustees criticized for lack of transparency by former state senator

mdawson@centredaily.comSeptember 20, 2013 

— Former state Sen. Robert Jubelirer had a comparison for Penn State’s board of trustees on Friday:

He said he faced resistance in the General Assembly years and years ago when he worked to get the state Sunshine Law approved. And, he told the trustees, he sees the board resisting popular calls for governance reforms in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

“I think it’s very important that transparency become the mantra of this board of trustees,” said Jubelirer, during the board’s public comment session. “I see the same kind of opposition and sense it in this board of trustees. They don’t want to keep things open.”

Jubelirer, who at one point during his career as a lawmaker was the lieutenant governor, offered perhaps the most critical remarks Friday to the board in the ever-continuing debate over who knows what’s best for Penn State.

The former senate leader fell short in a bid to win an alumni seat on the board during elections this year.

Jubelirer ripped off a list of things he wants to see happen at Penn State: reducing the board size, subjecting the university to open-records laws and the board to the Ethics Act, and removing state Cabinet members from the board.

He told the trustees the General Assembly is very favorable to Penn State, and he shouted “Baloney!” when suggesting they feared retribution for kicking the state Cabinet members off the board.

Heated moments like this have come to characterize the public comment session of each trustees meeting since it was added. But for the first time Friday, the trustees responded.

Trustee Keith Eckel, the chairman of the governance committee, defended the board and pointed to the reforms that already have been put into place.

Eckel ticked off his own list, such as the expansion of the board’s committee structure, the strengthening of a conflict of interest policy and setting term limits, among others. Eckel said the board will hire a governance expert to facilitate the reforms that are more divisive, such as board size.

“I want everyone to know they are not going unnoticed,” Eckel said. “This is a work in progress.”

The notion of responding to comments from public speakers was discussed during a committee Thursday. Board Chairman Keith Masser had said he’d ask the appropriate committee chair to response to comments that were not “disrespectful.”

The board did not respond on Friday to comments from former football player Brian Masella, who’s been an outspoken critic of the board during previous meetings and public appearances. In his latest comments, Masella asked that the university restore the wall that was the backdrop of the Joe Paterno statue that was dismantled last summer. Masella said he sent the same request by certified mail in March but never heard anything back.

In other matters Friday, the board formalized its request for state funding in the 2014-15 budget.

Penn State is asking for almost $300 million, or an increase of $14.7 million in this fiscal year’s budget.

The requested amount has Penn State basing its preliminary tuition rates around a 3.49 percent increase at the University Park campus. That figure could go up or down depending on the funding level the state finalizes during the budget development process this coming spring.

The early university budgets allow a 2.5 percent salary increase and a 1 percent bonus for those who meet certain excellence standards.

Penn State will look to trim costs, too, and leaders are targeting more than $38 million in reductions.

Penn State is set to receive $214 million from the state to subsidize the tuition of Pennsylvania residents. The university received additional funding for its agricultural extension and research, the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport and the Hershey Medical Center.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said the university’s nearly $300 million appropriation request is “reasonable.”

But, he said, it’s hard to say what figure that will turn into later, because the state has not yet been able to measure its revenues for the next fiscal year.

Costs that will affect the number include pensions, Medicaid, and the federal Affordable Health Care Act, he said.

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