It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive group than the Penn State board of trustees.
And that includes those board members whose mission appears to be provoking chaos rather than fostering progress.
The trustees fell under the hot glare of public scrutiny yet again this week when student member Peter Khoury revealed that he had been pressured by leadership to remove himself from a lawsuit challenging the NCAA sanctions against Penn State.
Khoury told the Centre Daily Times he had been threatened with removal from a committee leading the search for Penn State’s next president if he remained a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
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A day later, Penn State said through its outside spokesman that Khoury’s involvement in the lawsuit and the presidential search created a “conflict of interest.”
“His personal interests and positions in the litigation would have required that he recuse and absent himself from significant parts of the committee deliberations and candidate interviews,” Penn State spokesman David La Torre said. “In light of these significant limitations on his ability to perform his role as a trustee, trustee Khoury had to make a choice between his personal interests as a plaintiff in litigation and his role as a trustee member of the presidential search committee.”
Khoury said he will take legal steps to remove himself from the lawsuit “to continue ensured and effective participation of a student in critical university matters here.”
Fellow board members Anthony Lubrano and Al Clemens, also plaintiffs in the NCAA lawsuit, rushed to Khoury’s defense and criticized their own leaders.
“I’m disappointed that board leadership resorted to those tactics,” Lubrano said. “I have no plans to withdraw from the lawsuit.”
Trustees Adam Taliaferro and Ryan McCombie are also parties to the NCAA suit along with the family of the late Joe Paterno, some Penn State faculty members and former Nittany Lions coaches and players.
Lawyers from both sides will make arguments in late October before a judge who will determine whether the civil suit has merit to move forward.
Not surprisingly, Lubrano and Clemens used the dispute as an opportunity to stoke the fires of discontent concerning the trustees and their relationship with alumni. Their reaction became fodder for the group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship to again assail the board over past decisions.
Is it problematic, as La Torre said, for five trustees to be doing the business of the university while also plaintiffs in litigation against the NCAA and its sanctions against Penn State?
Although these individuals are free to make their own choices, we have felt all along that for them to be parties to the NCAA lawsuit puts them at cross purposes with their roles with the university.
Would Khoury be able to fully carry out his duties in helping interview candidates for the critical position of university president if he were simultaneously involved with a lawsuit over NCAA sanctions?
La Torre said the view of board leadership is that Khoury would need to recuse himself from important meetings with candidates for the president’s office because the nature of those conversations would constitute a conflict because of his involvement in the action against the NCAA.
We suspect candidates for the university’s top administrative post would find it awkward to be interviewed by any individual who was a plaintiff in a lawsuit concerning Penn State and the NCAA. And the process would be difficult if a committee member were absent from some sessions.
Finally, should board leaders have been less heavy-handed in their dealings with Khoury specifically?
We say yes, although we obviously were not privy to every conversation that took place among board members concerning this situation.
Sadly, the debate brings another episode of angst for this group, which can’t seem to get out of its own way even when acting on reasonable intentions.
We long for a day when Penn State’s board of trustees is identified by its vision for the university, students and staff, not for its incessant infighting and constant parade of controversies.