How many people do you need to run a university?
Not the president and the deans and the people who give out grades and supervise research and do the daily things that keep college degrees flowing into the hands and heads of students.
No, we’re talking about the people who supervise all of that. The ones who make the policy decisions and approve the big movements of money and chart the direction a university is going to take.
How many of them do you really need?
There are no hard and fast answers.
Ask the majority of the board of trustees at Penn State, and you hear about 36 to 38.
That’s how many Penn State has now.
There are nine alumni-elected trustees, six who are selected to represent business and industry, six more that are elected by agricultural societies, six appointed by the governor, and the secretaries of education, agriculture and conservation and natural resources. The president of the university and Gov. Tom Wolf are non-voting members, and John Hanger, secretary of policy and planning, also is a non-voting representative from the governor.
Come July, there will also be three at-large trustees, a faculty member, a student and the immediate past president of the Penn State Alumni Association — changes that were made after suggestions on changes in governance, some of which were expected to see the board made smaller.
Among Pennsylvania’s state-related universities, the size of Penn State’s board is about par for the course.
At Pitt, the board has 40 members, four with no vote, bringing it to a comparable 36. Temple has 39 members, but again only 36 can vote. Lincoln has 39, too, but all of them get to weigh in on decisions.
“Typically, what one sees with public university boards tends to be smaller,” said Michael Poliakoff, of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Fifteen or less is not at all unusual. (Virginia) has 17. Colorado only has nine.”
It is private schools where things can get big.
“That’s where it can be used as a fund-raising tool,” he said. Harvard’s Board of Overseers has 32, the University of Pennsylvania has 56 trustees, Princeton has 40 and MIT has 44 term members, 25 life members and four ex officios.
So what is better?
“We argued vigorously, not just in reference to Penn State, but all over the country, that if you go much above 15 members, you are creating a board that will have a very hard time functioning effectively,” Poliakoff said. “We feel moving up from already being large at 30 is moving in the wrong direction.”
But Penn State spokesman Dave LaTorre defended the decision, saying it is comparable to the university’s fellow state-related universities.
As far as public Big Ten peers, Ohio State has 18 trustees. Minnesota has 12 regents. Purdue has 10 seats, one of which is vacant. Michigan has just eight regents. They are elected in statewide elections and meet once a month in public. Private Northwestern University has 69 trustees.
Penn State’s leaders come together every two months for two days of meetings. Committees gather to discuss issues in smaller groups on the first day, with a closed-door session in the morning of the second day followed by a public meeting that afternoon.
The next two-day session will be held Thursday and Friday at The Penn Stater.
State Sen. John Yudichak worked last year on a proposal for reforming the Penn State board through the legislature, which would have reduced the number to 23.
It didn’t succeed, but he didn’t stop. He has talked about a new plan, which would also have 36 members, but split how they come to the board, with 12 appointees from the government, 12 at-large and 12 elected.
That plan has not yet been introduced.
However, the university’s leadership holds strong to the plan that took months of debate and research.
“Penn State has worked for nearly three years on a series of important reforms that have greatly improved board oversight of the University — and ourselves,” Chairman Keith Masser said in an email.
“Among them, we’ve expanded our oversight committees and opened them to the public. We recently added a 10th alumni member to the Board through the alumni association, but Penn State already allows for alumni to directly elect 9 members to its board, more than any other in the state or Big Ten. While alumni comprise our largest bloc of board membership, it also includes constituencies from business and industry, agriculture and government. We also created positions for student and faculty trustees, as well as three at-large positions. At-large members will ensure the board can identify and recruit candidates with skillsets that may not necessarily fit into traditional constituencies. This healthy makeup ensures no single group can control the agenda and requires real consensus building to reach a majority.”
But still, the critics remain unconvinced, pushing for fewer decision makers.
“Schools are really beginning to look seriously at whether these immense boards are fostering accountability and trusteeship,” said Poliakoff. “I think that finally higher education is recognizing that the future is bleak without highly engaged and informed trustees, free of many constituency influences.”