Penn State trustees blasted over hiring process for university president

mdawson@centredaily.comNovember 1, 2013 

  • NEED TO KNOW

    The trustees will meet in executive session at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Boardroom I and II of the Nittany Lion Inn.

    The meeting, advertised as one about a personnel matter, is closed to the public.

— Penn State board of trustees Chairman Keith Masser defended Thursday the confidential and tightly controlled search process being used to select the university’s next president, a day after a colleague criticized it as too insular.

Also Thursday, a legal expert said Penn State was not in line with the Sunshine Law when it vaguely advertised a public meeting for a personnel matter, which fueled speculation the board would approve the hiring of a new president. The meeting was postponed, although the board is scheduled for a closed-door executive session Friday morning.

Masser, who was on campus Thursday participating in confidential interviews of firms to help facilitate additional governance reforms, reiterated his stance that the search must be confidential for the protection of the candidate. He also said the board voted in November in favor of the process being used, which had a search committee refer a candidate pool to a council of 12 trustees who are tasked with selecting the finalist.

“The board approved the process to bring one candidate forward,” he said. “That’s the resolution we’re operating under.”

The board has come under fire from trustee Anthony Lubrano, who in published reports criticized the process because he and other members of the board were kept in the dark about the selection process for the new president. The search council, led by trustee Karen Peetz, has released few details, except that its members hope to have the new president selected around November.

Lubrano faulted the board with appointing just one alumni-elected trustee, Marianne Alexander, to the search council, while five of the trustees’ six business and industry-elected delegates were given a seat at the table. Other trustees on the search council include Masser, board Vice Chairman Paul Silvis and student trustee Peter Khoury.

Lubrano could not be reached for comment on Masser’s response, but the alumni group that’s been critical of board decision-making since the Jerry Sandusky scandal erupted on campus was unmoved by Masser’s defense of the process.

Maribeth Schmidt, a spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, pointed to former trustee Ben Novak in 1994 who asked for more involvement in selecting the president who ended up being Graham Spanier. Novak has said his overtures were shot down.

“The more the Penn State trustees shut us out, the larger the chorus of those who are asking, ‘Why are the Penn State trustees so hell-bent on secrecy?’ ” Schmidt said.

Trustee Al Clemens was more sympathetic of the work at hand.

“The board is trying to do the best job they can possibly do with this under a trying and difficult time,” he said in a phone interview.

The search process has been underway since last year to find the successor to President Rodney Erickson, who has said he’d retire by June 30, 2014, when his contract expires.

Penn State appeared on the doorstep of naming the successor when it advertised a cryptic meeting notice this week in which it said the board would consider a “personnel matter.”

But the meeting was abruptly called off Wednesday afternoon, and the university said it was “delayed indefinitely to allow for further consideration on the matter.”

An executive session Thursday was also canceled, though a second executive session at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Nittany Lion Inn is still a go. The public notice says that’s for a personnel matter.

However, media law counsel Melissa Melewsky said the reason for the executive session falls short of the requirements of the Sunshine Law.

“The Sunshine Act requires that public bodies, such as the board of trustees, publicly announce specific reasons, identifying a real, discrete matter that is best addressed in private,” she said. “Simply saying the board will meet to consider personnel matters doesn’t rise to that level and doesn’t allow the public to understand the reason for the private session.”

Melewsky said the notice repeats the wording in the Sunshine Law to justify having a private session, but she said the law requires more that just the category of private information being discussed.

She pointed to a case in 1993 in which the Commonwealth Court said the public deserves more specific information than “personnel matters” or “litigation” about an issue being discussed behind closed doors. In that case, a Reading newspaper contested the Reading City Council meeting in an executive session for “litigation” without specifying the matter.

“The board should give the public more information about the reason for the executive session,” Melewsky said about Penn State’s board. “It can do so either before the session takes place or at the next public meeting after the session occurs.”

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