Senate committee passes Penn State trustees reform bill

mcarroll@centredaily.comJune 10, 2014 

For months, Penn State’s board of trustees has been exploring governance reforms that could change the panel’s size and structure. But that change might not wait for the board’s findings.

Proposed legislation calling for reform passed a state Senate committee Tuesday and will move to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, would reduce Penn State’s board of trustees from 30 voting members to 23 and would boot the university’s president, the governor and a state secretary off the panel altogether.

“Today’s vote was culmination of months of thoughtful deliberation on governance reform at Penn State and helps move the university forward in creating a more effective, more engaged board of trustees,” Yudichak, a Penn State alumnus, said in a statement.

Penn State, in its own statement Tuesday, urged the legislature to wait on reform recommendations from the board’s governance committee before pursuing the law.

“The university’s board of trustees has adopted sweeping changes in its governance structure over the past year or so — in response to both internal and external reviews ...,” the university said in a statement. “Further changes to the make-up of the board are currently under consideration by the governance committee, which is reviewing data and recommendations from multiple sources.”

Reform-minded candidates have dominated Penn State alumni trustees elections the past three years, but there remain divergent opinions on the board about the university’s governance structure.

A firm the board hired last year to help move along the debate has been working with the panel for months, and in May presented findings of a study of board sizes and makeups at 20 peer universities.

Trustee Anthony Lubrano, a member of the governance committee, expressed skepticism Tuesday that the university’s panel’s work will lead to substantial reform. He praised the Senate committee for moving the bill forward.

“My long-held view is the BOT is too large and thus ineffective,” Lubrano said. “Frankly, had we the courage to reform ourselves in a meaningful way, legislation would be unnecessary.”

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, who co-sponsored the bill and voted Tuesday to send it to the full Senate, said the legislature wants to partner with Penn State in the process.

“I’m reluctant to take this step as far as the legislature deciding this,” he said during the hearing. “But at the same time, I think Sen. Yudichak has put a lot of good work into this, and with the changes we made in the amendment, I can be supportive.”

The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees Reorganization Act, as the bill is known, would eliminate board positions for Penn State’s president, the governor and the state secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The trustees have already removed the university’s president and governor as voting members.

Under the proposed legislation, the state secretaries of education and agriculture would be made nonvoting board members.

The new makeup would be: eight elected alumni, five governor appointees, five elected members from the agriculture industry, and five members from business and industry appointed by a trustee committee.

Corman said the bill is “providing something that still allows for quite a few members to share the workload, but at the same time keeps it to a level where everyone can be well-informed of the decisions that are going on.”

Yudichak said in a statement that national higher education research studies indicate smaller governing boards are more engaged in the decision-making process and provide more effective oversight of university operations.

The board’s recent study of its peers found public universities and land-grant universities included in the group had 13 voting board members as a median.

The University of Pittsburgh and Temple University, however, both have more than Penn State, each with 36 voting members, the research showed.

Corman said during the hearing that’s something the General Assembly will have to address.

“If we are going to look at this by the numbers, and thinking the smaller the better, then clearly those state-related universities will need to be reviewed as well,” he said. “But obviously with the events that happened in the most recent years, and some of the comments of the board of not being informed at Penn State has put them in the front seat, so to speak.”

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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