Small crowd keeps up criticism of Penn State trustees at Conklin’s McKeesport gathering

mdawson@centredaily.comOctober 10, 2013 

— Critics continued the verbal assault on Penn State’s board of trustees Wednesday, saying during a public hearing outside Pittsburgh that the much-maligned governing body needs further reforming and transparency only possible through the General Assembly.

The session at Penn State’s Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport drew a meager crowd of 10 people who listened as state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, and trustee Anthony Lubrano said the board needs more governance reforms than what the trustees have already adopted. Conklin has three Penn State reform bills bogged down in various committees within the state House, and the public session was a way to raise awareness in the hope of moving the legislation forward.

“Generally, based on my experience serving on the board since July 2012, that Penn State’s board of trustees is too large, too insular,” Lubrano said. “Hopefully legislation will have some success making an impact on Penn State.”

The debate over who knows the best ways to reform Penn State has been a hot-button issue in the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The board has received reform proposals from its own investigation by Louis Freeh, former state auditor general Jack Wagner, the university faculty, alumni and lawmakers.

The university has implemented almost all of the Freeh recommendations that are intended to strengthen the policies and procedures for security, governance and compliance. The board has taken up other recommendations, such as Wagner’s recommendation to strip the university president and state governor of their voting powers, and it’s approved strengthening a conflict of interest policy and instituting a five-year waiting period before trustees can be eligible for a job at the university.

Administrators have said Penn State has institutionalized the changes, or made them part of the university’s fabric, but critics such as Lubrano and Conklin have said the reforms don’t go far enough.

For those who have closely followed the popular debate about board reform, Wednesday’s session did not break any new ground.

Conklin is trying to drum up support for his proposed legislation — House bills 299, 310, 311 and 312 — that would reduce the size of the board to 22 members, subject Penn State and all state-related universities to open-records law and require trustees to be subject to the state ethics act, among other reforms.

Lubrano continued to speak out against the board, saying among other things that the size of the board is too large for all 30 members to be fully engaged.

“As I sit here today, I have to tell you that there are many of us who are not involved because the leadership of the board doesn’t share with us,” Lubrano said. “And that’s just a mistake. You don’t marginalize your members.”

Lubrano also said board members who knew about the grand jury presentment in 2011 and didn’t alert the other trustees should be considered as breaching their fiduciary duties, something he said he’s been accused of doing with his public comments.

Another prominent critic who’s joined the chorus of anti-board sentiment is Bob Jubelirer, the former state senator and lieutenant governor from Blair County known for losing a re-election bid in the primary after he authored a late-night pay raise bill for lawmakers.

During his more than 10 minutes of remarks, Jubelirer hurled sharp criticism of the board in what is seen as his gathering steam for his campaign for one of the three alumni seats on the board this spring.

“Any time you hear the word, ‘we’ve institutionalized this,’ or ‘we’ve institutionalized that,’ be suspicious,” Jubelirer said. “Because any time you institutionalize something as a board you can re-institutionalize it next week or next year and take it away.

“The only way you’re going to get true reform is through the legislative process,” he went on. “They can make all the so-called reforms they want and change them the next day.”

Jubelirer also recounted his recent exchange with trustee Keith Eckel during last month’s board meeting on campus when he criticized the board during the public comment session. Eckel responded by ticking off a list of the reforms Penn State has taken up and said the reform conversation will continue.

Jubelirer isn’t sold on the reforms, and he accused the board of not being interesting in transparency the way the state legislature was resistant to the Sunshine Law he authored many years ago.

“We’re still living in the old days with the Penn State board of trustees, no matter what Mr. Masser says,” Jubelirer said, referring to Chairman Keith Masser.

The first Conklin-sponsored Penn State hearing drew a crowd of 70 people in State College, where alumni and Penn State fans railed against the board. What was unique about that session was the presence of board Chairman Keith Masser and Vice Chairman Paul Silvis.

All trustees were invited to the one in McKeesport, but Lubrano was the only one to attend. Masser declined the invitation in a letter to Conklin, and the chairman spelled out the specific reforms the university has adopted.

“It is unfortunate that it appears these actions have been overlooked by some as not being sufficient, simply because all of the Wagner recommendations have not been adopted,” Masser wrote. “Regardless, our ongoing review is being driven by our desire to implement best practices and adopt governance reforms that are both appropriate for Penn State and are a model in the nation.”

Lubrano has caught flak from other trustees for his outspoken remarks, so it remains to be seen how the board will address his remarks when the trustees reconvene in November. At a board committee meeting in July, trustee Richard Dandrea told Lubrano that his previous outspoken remarks have “undercut the policies and positions of the board.”

Alumnus Fred Hyde made an hour drive from Mars in Butler County to the public session and said he was disappointed that none of the other 29 trustees came.

“We appreciate those of you that have the vision to see what’s broken and the will and the drive to fix it,” Hyde said. “Unfortunately, the broken parts don’t understand they’re broken.”

A student leader from the Greater Allegheny campus asked Lubrano for his thoughts on whether a student should have a seat on the board. The student, Jacqueline Dell, of Pittsburgh, said that idea has gained support in student government circles. Currently, there is a student on the board. Peter Khoury, though, is an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett. There is not a specified student trustee seat.

But Lubrano said he doesn’t think that is appropriate. He said he would support a student with non-voting powers, so that at least the student voice is part of the discussions. Some student leaders are part of the trustees’ committee meetings.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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