Alice Pope: Alumni association eschewing inclusiveness

Why does the Penn State Alumni Association leadership fear democracy?

In calling our quest to run for alumni council a “power grab,” Penn State Alumni Association Executive Director Roger Williams uses a tactic from Politics 101: Create a smokescreen to distract from the real issues.

The real power grab has already occurred.

The PSAA, aided by the power bloc within the board of trustees, has created an automatic trustee seat for the past president of the PSAA, so we will now have a super-trustee, more powerful than any other individual trustee.

It is telling that Williams is quiet about the fact that the past president, while serving as a university trustee, will simultaneously continue to hold a powerful leadership position within the PSAA.

Few understand the internal workings of the PSAA, where the nominal governing body — the alumni council — is trumped by the executive board, a group dominated by members handpicked by the PSAA president, by whom most important decisions are made.

Meanwhile, the Nominating Committee, with all members chosen by the president, selects the vice president, who automatically becomes the president, and then ascends to a trustee seat. The past president is a member of the executive board and chairs the Nominating Committee, thus guaranteeing control over the choice of the next PSAA leader and, ultimately, a university trustee.

No other trustee gets to self-select his or her successor. Yet Williams is worried about “undue influence” of four trustees serving on the 86-member alumni council.

Also deeply troubling is the potential for conflict of interest with the PSAA trustee.

The independence of the PSAA is already muddied by the organization’s reliance on Penn State for more than 25 percent of its annual budget, as well as the fact that its executive director reports to Penn State administrators.

One can imagine the possibility of Penn State administration pressuring the PSAA leadership to install a sympathetic trustee on the Penn State board. This danger is magnified by the lack of any semblance of democratic process in the selection of PSAA leaders; instead, a self-perpetuating group calls the shots for the PSAA and chooses their very own trustee.

Our university deserves better governance than this, and Penn State’s alumni deserve an alumni association that serves them in a fair and inclusive manner.

Our interest in serving on the alumni council is driven by a single goal: to advocate for inclusive and transparent governance processes within the PSAA.

In response to our nominations, the PSAA has turned itself inside out, violating its own bylaws on election procedures and hurriedly moving to implement revisions to bylaws that further disenfranchise its own members.

Changes passed by the council on Friday will exclude the public – including PSAA members — from Council meetings; remove established parliamentary procedure for council meetings in favor of giving the president full control over the way business is conducted; adding more president-nominated members to the council to bring the total membership to more than 100; removing any input on council nominations from the council itself; and concentrating full control in the Nominating Committee.

We wonder why the PSAA response to questions about its operations has been to adopt such extreme policies to reduce accountability and membership participation. Whose interests are they serving?

We are not alone with these concerns. We have spoken with a number of past and current council members who are frustrated with the governance practices within the PSAA.

On one important point we agree with Williams: The mission of the PSAA must be protected.

To better “connect the alumni to the university and each other,” we believe that the hardworking and devoted volunteers of the Penn State Alumni Association, and all alumni, should be provided with full and open opportunities for participation in the association.

Our alumni association should be for all alumni, not just a few insiders, and without concerns that the organization is serving two masters.

Our attempts to resolve these concerns through respectful discussion failed. Now we seek the opportunity to pursue good-faith efforts from inside the association as members of the council.

We believe alumni association voters are more than capable of deciding whether our efforts support the collective interests of our devoted alumni.