Roger L. Williams: Penn State Alumni Association protecting its mission of service

In the strange world that American higher education now inhabits, anything can happen and often does. That’s especially true at Penn State, where the post-Sandusky era has given rise to an eruption of once-unimaginable events.

In the latest such instance, four university trustees are seeking to extend their power by running for seats on the governing board of their alumni association. On Tuesday, the Penn State Alumni Association was informed that a lawsuit had been filed by four alumni-elected university trustees — Anthony Lubrano, Ted Brown, Bill Oldsey and Alice Pope.

They want their names placed on the ballot for the spring 2015 alumni council election, in which 32 candidates are already vying for 10 seats on our 86-member governing board.

During the fall and winter, the alumni council nominating committee, in evaluating 44 nominees for the spring election, approved 30 and disapproved 12. Two others dropped out of the nomination process, but two more were later added when the alumni association opted not to oppose their petitions. The four alumni trustees were among those not approved.

The nominating committee had determined that two groups of individuals should not be permitted to run for alumni council: university administrators and trustees, whether sitting or emeriti; and nominees currently engaged in lawsuits against the alumni association or the university.

There are at least three major reasons for excluding administrators and trustees: the potential for disproportionate influence in alumni council proceedings; the potential for conflicts of interest, especially in regard to our mission; and, most worrisome, the potential for compromising the alumni association’s independence and autonomy as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization mandated to promote and enhance the general welfare of the university.

The alumni association is not an auxiliary arm of the board of trustees, nor does it wish to become one. But it would be easy for trustees, by virtue of their inherent power, to dominate our proceedings and divert us from our mission and service-oriented focus.

And if four are allowed to run this year, how many more would follow suit the year after?

So we’re going to make our stand. We are concerned that our 144-year-old mission could be weakened, if not undone.

The alumni association is not a watchdog, agitprop or activist group with a political agenda. Rather, it is an ecumenical, politically neutral service organization. In hundreds of positive ways, we support our beloved alma mater and the broad and fast-growing constituency of more than 174,000 members and 631,000 alumni.

Our governing board, the 86-member alumni council, is composed of members who are dedicated to an ethic of service, altruism and volunteerism. In the main, our council members have come up through the ranks, serving in volunteer leadership posts in our more than 300 affiliate groups: college and campus alumni societies and their affiliate program groups, geographically based chapters and alumni interest groups.

They also serve as admissions volunteers, career mentors and leaders in the many advisory and fundraising organizations across the university. We do not want to see them displaced by those who already have gained for themselves a tremendous opportunity to serve Penn State as an administrator or trustee.

In November, the board of trustees granted seats to three new “stakeholder” constituencies: the alumni association, students and faculty. Some have asked why it’s OK for the alumni association to have a seat but not for trustees to be granted equivalent privileges. The answer is that we are not equivalent organizations, in power or in mission.

The trustees represent and govern the entire university; the alumni association is only one stakeholder in that governance — one of 36 voices, which hardly constitutes disproportionate influence. The trustees are not, to our knowledge, agitating for voting seats with the student or faculty governance bodies, so one might ask, “Why target the alumni association?”

The association’s new seat on the board of trustees is a confluence of interest, not a conflict.

Our articles of incorporation define us as a body organized “for the specific purpose of promoting and enhancing the general welfare of The Pennsylvania State University as an agency for education, research, and public service and to encourage and stimulate interest among students, former students, and others in the programs, progress and welfare of The Pennsylvania State University.”

That mission is what’s at stake, and that’s why we must continue to guard ourselves against undue and inappropriate influence.