Penn State students propose permanent board of trustees seat

mdawson@centredaily.comFebruary 19, 2014 

Penn State’s student body is on the verge of getting more say in university decision-making.

Student leaders have been working on a proposal to give them a permanent seat on the board of trustees, and their efforts appear to have made significant progress. When Penn State’s trustees meet next, in March in Hershey, one of the board’s committees is likely to take up the proposal, student leaders said.

“It’s important to have a student on the board because they’re seeing any kind of issues or problems firsthand,” said Scott Rager, the president of the graduate student body and one of the student leaders on the proposal. “They can really bring that viewpoint from the student perspective to the rest of the board.”

As part of the discussion on the proposal, the trustees on the governance and long-range planning committee are expected to discuss how a permanent student seat would be added to the board. Student leaders had different takes — adding a new seat altogether or using the proposed student trustee to replace the governor-appointed trustee seat that traditionally has gone to a student.

Undergraduate student body president Katelyn Mullen seconded Rager’s remarks, saying it’s important for the largest stakeholder at the university, the students, to have a voice in decision-making.

Peter Khoury, the student governor-appointee, will graduate with his master’s degree in May, and his term is up later this year. He will remain on the board after graduation, but that won’t effect his eligibility.

Under the student leaders’ proposal, students would have to apply to a student trustee selection committee, go through two rounds of interviews and then be approved by the board before he or she would be official. Rager said the term would be for two years, and if the student graduates during the term, he or she would be removed from the board.

Khoury is going to lead the process to develop the application for student-trustee hopefuls. Joining Khoury will be non-voting student representatives on the board, such as Rager, and they will select additional students to serve on the selection committee.

The selection committee will screen applications and select 10 students to interview, and then only the group of student board reps will conduct second-round interviews and recommend the finalist.

Rager and Mullen say they’ve gotten support from the university, board leadership and the governor’s office.

“Student involvement in university governance is obviously very much desired,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. “An informed student body is more active and cares about the broader actions of the university. It’s important to have this key constituency at the table to provide a critical perspective.”

The student body is one of the university’s stakeholder groups that has asked for a board seat. Last fall, leaders of the Penn State Alumni Association asked for a seat, and earlier last year, Penn State faculty members included a seat at the table in their list of recommendations to improve university governance.

One expert on university governance recommended Penn State hit the brakes before adding another seat to its board.

Michael Poliakoff, a vice president with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said board’s size is already “unwieldy” and “suffers from too many appointments” representing different stakeholder groups. The board has 32 members, 30 of whom vote, and Poliakoff said 15 should be the upper limit for a governing board.

“What Penn State needs more than anything else at this moment is a board whose every member is highly informed, highly engaged and focused on the board’s duty to represent the best interests of the students and taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Despite the value of a student perspective, there is — quite literally — no room at the table.”

Student trustees are on the governing boards of Big Ten schools Ohio State and Indiana.

And Florida State, whose president, Eric Barron, Penn State just hired, has a student trustee who participated in a meeting Wednesday to discuss plans to find Barron’s replacement.

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