Their View: Lawmakers need to rein in Penn State trustee power bloc

Penn State is a cornerstone of the state’s economy and the source of higher education for many thousands of citizens. Unfortunately, a small cabal of influential individuals has accumulated enough power that they make decisions on behalf of Penn State that are not necessarily in the best interests of the university and, by extension, the commonwealth.

Board of trustees’ bylaws state that seven or more trustees can schedule a board meeting. In accordance with section 2.06 of our bylaws, eight of my colleagues and I scheduled a meeting on Dec. 15.

The purpose was to discuss whether Penn State should join state officials as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA rather than standing with the NCAA as a defendant.

The stakes in this lawsuit are huge — many tens of millions of dollars as well as Penn State’s reputation hang in the balance.

Our standing orders specify that trustees must “prepare diligently, attend faithfully, and participate constructively in all Board of Trustees meetings.” In blatant violation of this order, board Chairman Keith Masser not only boycotted the Dec. 15 meeting, he encouraged other trustees to do so.

These actions were irresponsible, unethical and possibly illegal.

The Masser boycott is just the latest in a series of governance failures that have undermined confidence in Penn State’s leadership. The 2012 acceptance of the NCAA consent decree is but one example of a few powerful people hoarding information and making highly questionable decisions for the board.

Rather than convening the full board to grapple with monumental decisions, then-university president Rodney Erickson consulted just a few of the board’s power players — and then-head football coach Bill O’Brien — before signing a deal with significant financial and reputational impact on the university.

Given that one high ranking NCAA staffer described her organization’s efforts to sanction Penn State as a “bluff,” it seems likely that a candid discussion among the full board would have resulted in a better outcome.

Recent governance changes have not resolved the issue of the elite few making decisions for the entire board. Although best practices emphasize the need for smaller boards composed of fully engaged members, the Penn State board has been made larger and thus easier for the powerful few to control.

The Sandusky scandal has cost the university at least $100 million — just about half the annual appropriation Harrisburg gives to Penn State.

To restore Pennsylvania taxpayers’ confidence that the money they pour into the university is being wisely spent, state leaders need to act. Gov.-elect Tom Wolf and the state General Assembly should impose a solution on this small group of power players who seem unwilling to put their own desires aside and act for the greater good.