Their View: Hoping for a better board of trustees for Penn State

The Penn State board of trustees’ bungled response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal is epic.

Trustees authorized more than $8 million for an “independent” investigation by Louis Freeh that excused the board of any direct responsibility, but proved to be little more than a potentially libelous collection of innuendo and supposition, which university President Eric Barron now says cannot be used to guide the institution’s decision-making.

In the course of its mishandling of the Sandusky crisis, the board summarily dismissed now-deceased football coach Joe Paterno without as much as a hearing, alienated untold thousands of alumni, refused to disclose information about its members’ action during the crisis and retreated into a bunker.

In three board elections for alumni members, alumni voters overwhelmingly defeated incumbents who stood for re-election or convinced the others not to seek new terms. None of the alumni-elected trustees who were on the board in 2011 remain.

That pretty much has been the scope of board reform, however. Only nine board seats are subject to alumni election; others are assigned to state government appointees and agricultural and business interests. Those appointments serve as a bulwark against transparency and the source of tension between the elected and appointed members, and between the board and alumni and other interested parties seeking accountability for the board’s conduct.

State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, an alumnus who has sought board reforms, has developed a bill to restructure the board, which is dramatically different that his effort to do so last year.

Beyond the nine alumni-elected seats, the current board has six trustees appointed by the governor, six elected by various agricultural interests and six elected by business interests. In addition, a student trustee, a faculty trustee and a trustee who is the past president of the alumni association are joined by three at-large members. There are also five ex-officio members who serve by their position within state government or the university: the secretaries of Education, Conservation and Natural Resources, and Agriculture have voting powers; the governor and the president of the university do not have voting powers.

Yudichak’s plan would decrease the board to 36 seats — 12 elected by alumni, 12 appointed by the governor and legislative leaders and 12 selected by current board members. The bill would establish better balance on the board and, possibly, preclude dominance by any particular faction, thus increasing prospects for greater transparency.

Of course, the plan is not perfect. It vastly increases politicians’ involvement, for example. And it’s not even clear that the board is subject to change by state law. Less than 14 percent of Penn State’s budget is from state government sources.

Yudichak is on the mark, however, about the need for board reforms to promote balance and transparency in Penn State’s governance. He should pursue it while being open to other ideas.