Penn State has made progress since the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but there is still more work to be done.
That was the upshot of a report released Thursday by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
The report is the result of an audit for the university from January 2013 to March 2017. DePasquale told the Centre Daily Times in August 2016 that he would initiate Penn State’s “first ever performance audit.”
“We believe more changes are needed, including reducing the size of the board of trustees ... and improving transparency and accountability to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers by including PSU under the state’s Right-to-Know Law and the Public Official and Employees Ethics Act,” DePasquale wrote in his report.
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The results pick up on a prior auditor’s recommendations from 2012, when Jack Wagner made a host of suggestions, including removing the president from the board of trustees and lowering the number of trustees from 32.
Penn State did make changes, but not quite as suggested. The president is still a member of the board, but not a voting member. Look at the trustees membership page and you now see 39 faces. Three are non-voting. One is a representative for the governor, who does not usually attend meetings. Six more have actually been added to the board since Wagner suggested paring the membership down.
“Penn State’s board has had more than 30 voting trustees for more than a century,” said chairman Ira Lubert in a statement. “Over that time, the university has grown from a farmer’s high school to a world renowned public research institution. It is the level of trustee engagement, not the number of members, which is the critical factor that enables the board to provide the appropriate level of oversight.”
The university’s response to the Sandusky scandal was part of the review, and DePasquale took issue with one aspect of that, too, singling out a 7 percent error rate with clearances for employees working with kids at Penn State camps.
“This error rate is poor for any institution, but for PSU and its attempts to recover from the child sex abuse scandal caused by Jerry Sandusky, it is unacceptable,” DePasquale wrote.
Penn State pushed back on the figure, saying DePasquale’s audit “randomly selected 76 of 732” camps, finding just six to be missing at least one clearance.
“The auditor general’s statement that 57 of 732 camps were out of compliance is an estimate based on an assumed extrapolation of his statistical sampling and not based in fact,” the university said in a statement.
DePasquale confirmed that in his press conference.
The auditor general also took aim at tuition, noting that the cost of attending the state’s land-grant university grows at a rate outstripping the consumer price index.
“While decreasing state support contributes to PSU’s need to raise its tuition rates, so too does PSU’s failure to adequately control its expenses,” DePasquale wrote. “We believe it is imperative for PSU’s board to become more engaged in monitoring and lowering its tuition cost drivers. We recommend that PSU do so through a dedicated task force tasked with developing a targeted plan to address cost containment and providing transparency via a ‘digital dashboard.’ ”
Penn State’s administration has been vocal about addressing “access and affordability,” particularly for in-state students. The university had its first tuition freeze for in-state students in decades for the 2015-16 school year, and followed that up in the 2016-17 school year with a freeze at several of the Commonwealth Campuses.
“We share the auditor general’s desire for cost control and are committed to continuing to work with the governor and legislature to address these challenges to keep a world-class Penn State education within reach for all Pennsylvanians,” Penn State President Eric Barron said in a statement.
The university’s response focused on the state support problems, saying “Pennsylvania ranks among the lowest in the country in terms of state support for higher education.”
According to Penn State’s figures on fellow Big Ten institutions, Minnesota received $625 million in appropriations and Nebraska $579 million compared to Penn State’s $230.4 million for 2016. Penn State had more than 99,000 students that year. Minnesota had about 67,000 total students and Nebraska less than 26,000, according to available data from the two schools.
Penn State claims that had state budget appropriations not fallen since 2002, tuition would be 19 percent lower for in-state students.
DePasquale’s concerns also address non-resident students, who pay tuition at a much higher rate than Pennsylvania students. He noted a “troubling trend” of those out-of-state students being accepted at higher rates than Pennsylvanians at University Park, the most high-profile — and expensive — Penn State campus.
Penn State maintains the number of applicants is growing but the percentage from Pennsylvania remains the same, about 68 percent.
DePasquale, however, said out-of-state acceptances have risen 95 percent in recent years, while Pennsylvanians have dropped 12 percent. International students have gone up 310 percent, according to the auditor general’s office.