Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, wants to put Penn State on equal footing with its three state-related siblings: Pitt, Temple and Lincoln University.
The senator proposed different legislation in 2013. Senate Bill 1240 sought to cut the trustees from 32 voting members to 23, and was being undertaken at the same time that the board was investigating its own reform proposals.
The trustees beat the General Assembly to the punch. In November 2014, they voted to increase the number of board members, rather than reduce, to 36 with a vote, including faculty, student and at-large representatives. It’s a system that has met criticism, including from within as the nine alumni-elected trustees have balked, saying that the new plan would make it harder for a small bloc of trustees to have a say against a larger majority.
“Put simply, what the new proposal does is: all other state-related universities have a similar board structure prescribed under an act. This would do the same for Penn State,” said Yudichak.
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The idea would keep the 36 votes, but break them into three equal groups. There would be 12 appointees by the government (four each from the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem), 12 at-large representatives, and 12 elected.
“After much debate, we recognized after we went through the process of trying to downsize the board that is not achievable. There are so many constituencies, the structure became a very convoluted process, a patchwork quilt of things,” Yudichak said.
The idea is thought-provoking, even for the trustees it would benefit.
“I do think we need further governance reform, and the suggested composition changes streamline the board into three equal groups that should provide a good balance,” wrote alumni trustee Barbara Doran in an email. “The gubernatorial and alumni-elected groups address the issue of accountability, as any can be removed for unsatisfactory performance. Substituting at-large trustees for the catch-all groups we have now, including the elimination of the outmoded agricultural seats, would help de-politicize the selection process and encourage a needs-based approach, though an independent and representative nomination committee would need to be established to ensure an apolitical process.”
However, she still favors reduction.
“I am not in favor of such a large board, which was already more than twice the size of the Big Ten, our relevant peer group, before the board voted to make it even bigger. Some believe that vote was a nakedly political move to prevent the noisy and fractious alumni-elected trustees from linking arms with whomever a new governor would appoint to gain control of the board,” Doran wrote, citing a state report that advocated cutting members. “Too large, and power devolves to a smaller more nimbler group, making it harder for the entire board to exercise its oversight responsibilities. We saw that happen in spades with the illegitimate NCAA consent decree, when only a handful of trustees had input into the process.”
State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, crossed the aisle to join with Yudichak in opposing the board last year, but he is coy on the new plan.
“Sen. Corman continues to support taking a closer look at governance reform, but hasn’t committed to a specific proposal at this time,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
Yudichak says that the change is meant to be less targeting of Penn State and more “driven by accountability and transparency.”
“This new proposal is not a measure that is motivated as punitive. It’s to make Penn State stronger,” he said.
He also believes it goes well with Gov. Tom Wolf’s plans to increase the university’s funding by $49 million in his budget proposal.
“I think the reflection that’s being made by Gov. Wolf’s proposal is that he values education...but as I’ve noted, the governor is also asking to hold the line on tuition and to have the most accountable and transparent form of government so that the investment is used in the most prudent fashion. If we’re going to increase higher education funding for Penn State, they need to hold the line and they need true governance reform,” said Yudichak. “We need to get away from governance reform being about preserving power blocks. It needs to be about the future.”
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers had no comment on Yudichak’s proposal, saying only “We have not yet seen the bill, so we can’t really speculate on the matter.”
Yudichak has 18 sponsors for his proposal, with bipartisan support from 10 Democrats and eight Republicans. He plans to roll it out as a formal bill next month.
The trustees will hold their March meeting in Hershey next week.