Column | Eliminate the trustees’ centricity of power

February 7, 2014 

Gavin Keirans

Since the termination of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier, an effort has been underway to vote out the incumbent members of the board of trustees.

In the past two years, alumni have been successful in electing six new alumni trustees. In April they will aim to complete the task, voting out the three remaining incumbents.

Even with a successful campaign, the alumni as a whole will remain a largely silenced minority. We will still lack a true avenue for effecting necessary culture change on the board.

Sen. John Yudichak recently proposed legislation that would downsize the board from 30 to 23 members.

Although I applaud the senator for tackling the topic of reform, this legislation misses the mark on the true problem with Penn State’s board structure. The issue is not necessarily with its size, but with the centricity of power among nonelected trustees, specifically on the board’s executive committee.

There is currently only one alumni trustee on the 13-member committee. It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that one of 13 stands little chance of effecting the sort of culture change the board requires.

The situation represents a clear suppression of Penn State alumni, and on the very committee on which decisions are made.

The elected alumni trustees have their own success stories and, more importantly, they have the support of the Penn State family.

Of the six alumni trustees elected so far, none is on the executive committee. Any proposed legislation must call for alumni trustee seats on the executive committee. In its current structure, in the most extreme of cases, there should be at least four alumni seats on the 13-member committee — proportional with the ratio of appointed to alumni trustees.

This would ensure that Penn State alumni have a guaranteed seat at the table for all major decisions regarding the university.

Now go further. Ensure that student and faculty leaders have a seat at the table for all of the seven standing committees in ex officio nonvoting capacity.

When Karen Peetz served as chairwoman, she started allowing student leaders to attend certain committee meetings.

We need to ensure that there are official student and faculty committee spots in the standing orders and that all committees are getting to hear the expertise of our students and faculty, who are engaged in the genuine challenges facing our university.

We also must put in writing that there is a student trustee position, such as mandated by Iowa Code Chapter 262 for the University of Iowa. Penn State has a tradition of using one of the governor’s appointments for a student, but it is not an official position.

Voting fresh, vibrant and dynamic trustees onto the board has been a positive first step.

Now we, as a Penn State family, must go further and see that the board recognizes the voice of the alumni and gives our alumni trustees seats on the executive committee — at the “big kid’s table.”

This is real change, and it’s time.

Gavin Keirans, of Philadelphia, is a strategy consulting manager and a former Penn State student body president who recently served on the executive board of the Penn State Alumni Council. He also is a candidate for the board of trustees. Readers may write to him at gavinkeirans@gmail.com.

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