You might have thought Penn State’s governance issues had been hashed out and resolved, but new legislation proposed in Harrisburg says otherwise.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, introduced The Pennsylvania State University Commonwealth Act on Wednesday, the second time he has tried to reframe the leadership of the university.
“The purpose, the goal, is a structural reform that would reaffirm the legal status of Penn State as a state-related university and build some uniformity with the other state-related universities,” Yudichak said.
As a land-grant university, Penn State occupies a unique position in the hierarchy of institutions in the commonwealth. In some ways, it is tied to the state, unlike a private school such as the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania. In others, it is more separate than one of the official state universities, such as Lock Haven or Indiana.
Three other schools live in this state-related limbo: Pitt, Temple and Lincoln.
“There are days when university lawyers will say they are a private nonprofit and days they say they are a state-related with a public mission,” said Yudichak. “The last few years, the current board majority has drifted and it has taken Penn State further toward a private mission.”
Yudichak’s bill has bipartisan sponsorship from more than 30 members of the state Senate. It would change the voting membership of the trustees, keeping the current 36 members, but changing where they would come from. Instead of a mix of agricultural, business and industry, alumni elected and gubernatorial appointed trustees, the makeup would include 14 appointees by the state (six by the governor, four from the Senate president pro tem and four from the speaker of the House), 12 alumni-elected (three more than the current complement) and 10 at-large trustees from a specified selection committee.
The governor, the secretary of education and secretary of agriculture would remain non-voting, ex-officio trustees.
“This new construction would really do two things,” said Yudichak. “One, it would reaffirm the status and clear up any inconsistencies. Two, it would create an opportunity that members serving as trustees on that board would have an ability to be informed, to be included and to carry out fiduciary responsibilities. The current board is opaque in operation and not inclusive.”
Yudichak and state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, had jointly championed the idea of reform last year. Corman’s office did not return calls but Yudichak said that, while Corman is not a co-sponsor, that he has been involved in shaping the proposal, which has also involved conversations with Gov. Tom Wolf.
That, he says, is part of why the bill was just proposed. Yudichak had originally hoped to unveil it in April.
“It took a little time. We wanted to make sure we got it right,” he said. “The current majority had little interest in the governor’s input. We wanted to make sure he had a seat at the table.”
But Penn State said that the issue has already been resolved.
“The board devoted well over a year to working with a nationally recognized governance expert, conducted benchmarking, and deliberated on various changes to its governance structure,” said spokesman Reidar Jensen. “The board voted overwhelmingly to approve a new structure that it believes will serve the interests of the university into the future.”
That vote was taken in November, shortly after Wolf’s election but before he took office. Some new trustees under the reformed structure were announced at the May meeting. They will be seated in July.
Yudichak, however, still wants to see the discussion on his bill move forward.
“I hope it will move quickly to the state government committee,” he said. “We’re going to have a budget debate over next several weeks, and it’s important that this be part of that debate. The taxpayers deserve accountability.”