Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a three-bill package of legislation that they hope will increase transparency and accountability of the commonwealth's state-related universities, including Penn State.
"The more transparency the taxpayers get, the more they want and government shouldn't stand in their way. Like our state-owned schools, these universities receive a tremendous amount of tax dollars. Taxpayers deserve to know their money is being used for the right reasons," state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, said at a press conference in Harrisburg.
For the 2017-18 fiscal year, Penn State received $230.4 million in general support appropriation from the state. Penn State's total operating budget for 2017-18 is $5.7 billion.
The first proposal, from state Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, would expand the extent of documents and financial information that is statutorily required for state-related institutions through the Right-to-Know law.
As the law is now, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and Penn State are only required to release limited information, such as reporting some financial information, including certain employees' salaries, to the legislature, auditor general and governor.
Maher said the legislation would expand the transparency obligations of the universities without compromising their important research and medical missions.
The second proposal, from Christiana, would subject members of the Board of Trustees and other employees who are responsible for taking or recommending official action to Pennsylvania's Ethics Act requirements — meaning these individuals would need to file statements of financial interest.
Finally, the third proposal, from state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Beaver County, would reform the structure of the Penn State Board of Trustees. It would limit the size of the board to 21 voting members and one nonvoting member. The board has 36 voting members and three nonvoting members.
The legislation suggest the board make up should be the governor, who would be the sole nonvoting member, the secretary of education, the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of conservation and natural resources, nine alumni-elected trustees, three members representing business and industry interests, three members representing agricultural interests and three at-large members, one of whom must be a student.
"This legislation would ensure the board answers to students, educators, alumni and donors, not to special interests," Bernstine said. "Too many cooks in the kitchen make it difficult to provide appropriate oversight and make decisions in the best interest in the Penn State community."
These changes are in line with recommendations made by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in his recent performance audit report of Penn State.
"This is not about football recruiting. This is not about athletics. This is not about an attack on any one institution. This is about making sure our four great state-related universities can become even greater," DePasquale said.
It's not the first time an attempt has been made to reform the board structure. State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, twice tried to reframe the leadership of the university.
The university took issue with being singled out for its board of trustees.
"The stated purpose of this so-called 'good governance' legislation is to significantly decrease the size of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, despite the fact that our board is the same size or smaller than our sister state-related universities," Penn State said in a statement. "We question the motive for proposing radical change that only targets Penn State when, by every measure, Penn State is thriving."
Pitt and Temple each have 36 voting members on their respective boards. Lincoln has 27 voting members on its board of trustees.
Penn State said the proposal could create problems, such as ending a long-standing partnership between the university and the commonwealth by eliminating the governor's appointed and Senate confirmed trustees and losing representation from critical constituencies like agriculture.
"The bottom line is that our continued success as a university requires a diverse board of trustees who are engaged and focused on our students and on our future," Penn State said. "This ill-conceived governance proposal does not serve these important goals."
Penn State Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Dambly isn't in favor of the board restructuring idea, either.
"This governance proposal is a transparent attempt to change the balance of power on the board to favor a small faction of trustees with a single-issue agenda. This proposal threatens good governance at a time when Penn State is flourishing," he said in a statement.
All nine alumni-elected Penn State trustees and three governor-appointed trustees — Ted Brown, Barbara Doran, Robert Jubelirer, Anthony Lubrano, Ryan McCombie, Bill Oldsey, Jay Paterno, Alice Pope, Rob Tribeck, Robert Capretto, Dan Deligatti and Elliott Weinstein — announced in March their support for the proposed legislation, saying in a press release at the time that "consensus expert opinion has called for updates to an antiquated decades-old board structure."
They said the updates are what's best for Penn State.