Higher ed group urges discussion on trustees power in wake of Paterno lawsuit

A higher education organization is using the lawsuit against the NCAA by the family of late Penn State coach Joe Paterno as a call for discussion about how university trustees are being marginalized.

Officials with the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni criticized the NCAA on Thursday, saying that college sports’ governing body has pushed university trustees out of a role as overseers of their schools’ athletics programs.

“Trustees are wrongly ceding their authority and putting the taxpayer dollar and students at risk,” their statement reads. “NCAA practices must change.

“Whether it’s agreeing to an NCAA sanction or switching a conference, governing boards must be actively involved in decisions of significant financial impact in order to fulfill their legal and fiduciary responsibilities.”

The Paterno lawsuit seeks to have a judge void the sanctions against Penn State that include a $60 million fine, a bowl ban and scholarship reductions. The lawsuit accuses NCAA officials of bypassing the organization’s rules when they slammed Penn State with the sanctions after the Louis Freeh investigation into the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

University President Rodney Erickson agreed to the sanctions, though many alumni question if Erickson had the authority to do that on his own or if he needed the trustees’ approval.

“Even if system lawyers now argue that board approval was not technically required, surely such decisions, putting millions and millions of dollars on the line, merit informed board consideration,” the council of trustees organization’s statement said.

“NCAA practices essentially require trustees to abdicate their responsibility as fiduciaries, and put students, the public and taxpayer dollars at risk by effectively forcing trustees to rubberstamp decisions by their presidents.”

Penn State trustees Anthony Lubrano, Alvin Clemens, Adam Taliaferro, Ryan McCombie and Peter Khoury joined the lawsuit, although the university itself is not one of the plaintiffs.

There will be anti-NCAA and anti-Freeh report voices coming on board in July, too, as the trio of Barbara Doran, Edward “Ted” Brown and William “Bill” Oldsey included those issues at the tops of their election campaigns.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni also pointed to the president of the University of Maryland, who negotiated with the Big Ten for membership without consulting the university’s board, as another example of trustees being out of the loop on oversight.

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: The American Council of Trustees and Alumni welcomes the discussion of trustee marginalization.