Column | ‘State’ of disrepair: Pennsylvania Legislature must fix Penn State

February 3, 2014 

On Jan. 23, Sen. John Yudichak and more than 20 co-sponsors introduced Senate Bill 1240, the Penn State University Board of Trustees Reorganization Act. If approved, this bill would make the board smaller and more engaged. It would also prevent a self-perpetuating elite from continuing to dominate the board.

The board’s pattern of dysfunction and governance failures makes it clear that this bill must be passed. In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, the board hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate how Jerry Sandusky preyed for years on children. The report provided numerous conclusions and recommendations — many still being debated — yet today, Penn Staters are no closer to understanding how a predator was able to operate within their midst.

Furthermore, Pennsylvanians have no way to rest assured that the governance problems that sent Penn State into a media and legal tailspin are behind them.

Trustees described in the Freeh report as negligent in their duties remain entrenched. Meanwhile, the board has pursued mostly superficial changes that preserve the status quo. Twelve-year term limits are now imposed, for example, but two trustees who have served 44 and 32 years, respectively, remain eligible for new terms starting in 2014.

Term limits were applied unevenly across the board, so that the most senior trustees were “grandfathered” in with even more time, while the new trustees are held to a firm 12 years. This isn’t the type of radical reform that the board needs.

The board’s reluctance to put its house in order is stunning, given the news of a group of trustees’ failed 2004 attempt at reform — reforms that, according to ESPN, Freeh investigators noted might have prevented the board’s descent into crisis following the grand jury inquiry into Sandusky’s actions.

Although Penn State has become the poster child for deficient university governance, the board’s small cabal of power brokers continues to resist progressive trustees’ efforts to create a better system. In a recent example, Penn State conducted a presidential search that limited vetting to a small group of trustees with the goal of offering just a single candidate for an up or down vote.

Although this closed process was lamented by a diverse set of critics — including the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, prominent alumni and Pennsylvania Common Cause — the process was not a new phenomenon. According to former trustee Ben Novak, the majority of trustees were excluded from the last presidential search in the 1990s.

Ironically, had the person believed to have been recommended by the search committee been approved, it would have resulted in further embarrassment to the university since the alleged candidate was forced to resign his position as president of the State University of New York’s upstate medical campus for violation of a clause in his contract prohibiting him from receiving outside compensation.

Rather than answer hard questions, the university administration has instead repeatedly urged the community simply to move forward.

The commonwealth’s public universities represent a sacred trust. Penn State must not be governed by factions of power brokers, but be examples of open participation and transparency; lack of transparency will always breed mistrust and suspicion.

At a state Senate hearing, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said it would be “a big mistake” to delegate the task of making needed changes to Penn State alone. And clearly, the present board isn’t capable of doing so.

That’s why it’s imperative that Pennsylvania legislators step up to the plate. Outside experts, including the auditor general and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, have developed detailed recommendations for the legislature to consider to improve Penn State’s faulty governance — currently dysfunctional by design.

The board’s size needs to be reduced and its domination by special interests needs to end. Independent resources and counsel to the board are also critical to good governance — resources that are missing at Penn State and most other institutions around the country, which remain sadly dependent upon the very administrations that they are supposed to oversee. To create transparency, Penn State needs to be covered fully by the state’s Right to Know laws as well as the State Ethics Act. Yudichak’s bill is an important first step and it deserves widespread support.

Pennsylvania annually appropriates more than $200 million to Penn State — a figure which, incidentally, could end up equaling the total costs the university is expected to bear as a result of mismanaging the Sandusky scandal. Given the board’s failure adequately to self-govern, it falls to the state legislature to hold Penn State accountable by approving Senate Bill 1240.

Alice Pope is a psychology professor and a three-time graduate of Penn State (1979, 1983, 1986). Bob Jubelirer is a former Pennsylvania state senator and lieutenant governor. He is a 1959 graduate of Penn State and a 1962 graduate of the Dickinson School of Law. Both are candidates for alumni-elected seats on the Penn State board of trustees.

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