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Community responds to new board of trustee legislation

by on July 25, 2013 11:56 AM

UNIVERSITY PARK — Joined by State Rep. Scott Conklin on July 17, members of the Penn State Board of Trustees welcomed both heated and heartfelt testimonies from the public at an open forum in which a package of bills concerning the board’s governance was revealed.

The four bills, introduced by Conklin, propose amendments to various aspects of the board’s administration, such as the size of the board and who should or shouldn’t be voting members. Referred to as the Penn State Reform Package, the legislation was developed with the help of a report by Auditor General Jack Wagner, who was in attendance at the meeting.

Held at the State College Municipal Building on South Allen Street, community members took a few minutes each to voice their concerns and suggestions regarding such issues as term limits, voting anonymity, emeritus status, meeting minutes’ availability and transparency, board selection and the state’s involvement with the university.

Board of trustees present at the meeting included board chairman Keith Masser, vice chairman Paul Silvis, Abe Harpster, Ted Brown and Anthony Lubrano. Also in attendance were Philip Falvo, research project manager for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and DJ Tor Michaels, who facilitated the meeting.

Masser, who began the meeting, said one year ago the Freeh Report came out, in which various changes were recommended to protect the university.

“The passing of this (anniversary) should not go unnoticed,” he said.

On the heels of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh presents 119 recommendations following an eight-month investigation.

“People will continue to debate the conclusions (of the report),” he said.

Masser said the Freeh Report focuses on improving the governance system of the university. As a result, the board has expanded its committee oversight and has opened up public comments at meetings.

He said he believes the “vast majority” of Penn State University wants to move forward in a positive way.

“We all share a willingness to take the hard but necessary road” to improve, Masser said.

Silvis, who took a few minutes to speak next, said he comes to the meeting with an open mind.

“I’m here to listen and take your suggestions back to the board,” he said.

Harpster echoed Silvis’ comments: “I’m here to learn and listen so I can make good decisions.”

Brown, who spoke next, said “As a philosophy, I prefer the state government not be involved” in what’s going on at Penn State, referring to Conklin’s bills.

However, he said, he would be “happy” if Harrisburg provided more financial support to Penn State. All other state schools receive more money per student than Penn State, he said.

Brown also said he believes the three secretaries on the board should not be voting members.

Next, Lubrano gave a statement, first saying he apologizes to the “entire Penn State University community” for failing “your honor” when it needed support the most.

He said it’s important for the board to get out in the community “as often as we can to interact.”

“I do believe that we have much more work to do,” he said.

Conklin, who agreed with Brown regarding the state’s lack of financial support to the university, said “the state should be embarrassed” about its cuts to Penn State.

Penn State, he said, is a “shining star,” and its community believes in coming together to look at decisions to move forward.

The first community member to comment was Ben Novak, who said he read Wagner’s recommendations and the Freeh Report, and both are directed at increased oversight. His idea is a different approach, he said, explaining that he’s not sure if 32 or 22 people from the outside will be better at running the university than the people inside it.

He proposes a more central approach, he said, instead of just globalizing efficiency.

Sandy Deveney, who took to the podium next, said the Right-To-Know Law, which is addressed in one of the bills, is “extremely applicable.” The law, which went into effect in 2009, provides access to public information.

Referring to board of trustees members saying they are concerned with what the public has to say, Deveney said restricted comments at board meetings leads one to conclude the “board is not always interested in alumni opinion.”

He also said some emails to the board of trustees have bounced back to him, additionally leading one to conclude the board is not always interested.

Masser responded first to Deveney, saying the board has opened committee meetings up to the public.

“I would encourage everyone to take advantage of that,” he said.

Lubrano said “the public comment period is near and dear to my heart,” explaining its implementation in July 2012.

He said he understands people would like to have some interaction at board of trustees meetings, which can run long for long periods of time, so “we have to figure out how to find that balance” to show the board is listening.

“We are listening to you,” he said.

Next, Thomas Kupchinsky presented the following suggestions to the board, among others: do away with anonymous votes; make all meeting minutes available to the public within three business days; only members in attendance at a meeting may vote; the executive committee should be “disbanded immediately”; the university president, as an employee of the university, should not hold board of trustee membership; and term limits should be set to 12 years.

He also said the size of the board is “bloated” and proposes it be made up of three representatives of the governor, three representatives from the business and industry sector, three agriculture representatives, and nine Penn State alumni.

Lubrano responded by saying he is a proponent of eliminating the governor on the board. And while he agrees the board may benefit if it’s smaller, he said “I think we need a truly engaged board” no matter the size.

Answering a public comment that came later in the meeting about trustees becoming university employees, Wagner said there is a chapter in his program that outlines insider movement. He said five years must elapse both ways: before a board of trustee can become a university employee, and before a university employee can become a trustee.

However, Wagner added, emergency cases may be handled differently. And he does agree that there has been “extensive movement in recent years” which may have hindered transparency and accountability.

Clarifying, he said there have been five documented cases of insider movement.

Ben Bronstein, who said he agrees with almost every suggestion on board transparency, said he wonders if “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

His comments refer to the state government calling upon Penn State to do “what they don’t do” regarding term limits and holding secret meetings, he said.

“I’d like to see our legislature do the same thing” they’re asking us to do, Bronstein said.

About a dozen more public testimonies were made, many in agreement about term limits and reducing the size of the board, which are proposed in bill 299. Other suggestions included improving the trustee selection process, having an independent advisory board choose some of the trustee candidates, recording votes, and making names of board applicants available to the public.

In closing, Wagner said the main goals in moving forward are to eliminate silence and put transparency and accountability at the forefront.

“That’s what this is all about,” Wagner said. “Changing the structure so this university can get back to where it was before.”

The three other House bills included in the proposed Penn State Reform Package are 310, 311 and 312.

Staff Writer at The Centre County Gazette
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