Board of Trustees

Penn State board moves toward hiring governance consultant

Penn State is following through on a promise surrounding the continuing debate over the future of its governance reforms.

The university has sent out requests for proposals to hire a consultant with expertise in governance reforms, President Rodney Erickson confirmed in a recent interview with the Centre Daily Times. The move stems from action taken during a board committee in July to seek an expert.

The topic is on the agenda for the board’s governance committee Thursday afternoon.

The trustees want the expert to help the board move forward with the hot-button issues that have positioned some trustees on opposite ends of the spectrum from fellow trustees, public officials and vocal alumni.

According to the university, the consultant will facilitate the consideration and evaluation of the issues such as the “optimal size” of the board, which stakeholder groups should be represented through elected or ex-officio positions, term limits, communication, standards for emeritus status and evaluations for trustees.

Spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the consultant will lead the evaluation process but will not provide a report or set of recommendations.

There’s been no shortage of recommendations to Penn State in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which exposed weaknesses in university governance, security, communication, compliance and other matters.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh issued a set of 119 recommendations to improve those issues, and the university has implemented most of them. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell was appointed by the NCAA to oversee the university’s progress in implementing the Freeh recommendations as well as required training and compliance in an athletics integrity agreement.

Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner issued his recommendations, which include a reduction of the board’s size and some that the university has put in place, such as removing the voting powers of the president and governor.

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, has gotten in on the act, too, authoring three bills that would change the university’s governance structure. Among them, he’d trim the size of the board and subject Penn State and state-related universities to open-records laws.

Conklin held a public hearing in State College in July to take input from local people about their ideas for change. Conklin is holding a hearing next month at the university’s campus in McKeesport.

The state Senate took testimony from trustees during a public hearing in March on Penn State governance, and in June, the senators ramped up their calls for governance reforms.

The University Faculty Senate weighed in, too, advocating that faculty members should have more input in how their university is run, and they spelled out 20 recommendations that include academic representation on the board.

Penn State’s board approved a sweeping set of reforms in May, which include increasing the quorum from 13 to 16 trustees, restructuring the executive committee, expanding a trustees’ conflict of interest policy, establishing four-term limits, and setting a five-year waiting period before a university employee or state row officer can become a trustee.

Some reform-minded trustees think the changes didn’t go far enough. They favor a smaller board, saying it will enable the trustees to be more engaged, but trustees who favor the status quo say the board’s expanded committee structure requires a larger number of trustees.

The trustees also sparred in July over giving emeritus status to former trustees Anne Riley and David Jones. The anti-emeritus bloc thought bestowing them with an honorable title was a slap in the face to the alumni community still waiting for the university to honor the late coach Joe Paterno.

Trustee Keith Eckel, who chairs the governance and long-range planning committee, was the one in July who raised the idea of hiring a governance consultant.

Eckel said he liked the idea of hiring a lawyer to serve as the expert so that attorney-client privilege would apply to the work that is done. The lawyer should have expertise in nonprofit and corporate board governance, he said.

“These are not simple issues,” Eckel said at the time. “These issues need to be addressed, in my opinion, with a great deal of study.”