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Penn State Board Misses Chance to Make Things Right

by on March 13, 2013 6:00 AM

Since November 2011, the Penn State Board of Trustees has faced challenges that most of its members probably never imagined. But, man, they’ve messed up most of it.

For months, Penn Staters have waited to hear from the Board about its decisions related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the firing of Joe Paterno, but most questions were met with what became the Board’s standard mantra of “moving on.” It fueled anger and resentment and became obvious to many alumni that the Board was no longer representing them and their interests. There are members of the Board who have Penn State’s best interests in mind, but it’s hard to tell them apart from the self-serving actions of others.

There seems to be a huge disconnect between the words of the Board and its actions. On the one hand, we repeatedly heard from former Board chairwoman Karen Peetz about how Penn State would become a model of transparency. But it took several months and numerous requests from alumnus Ryan Bagwell and others to finally get the contract between the Board and Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan released. Though the contract has raised some eyebrows, I’m not convinced that it contains anything earth-shattering. But it would have gone a long way in building trust equity if it had been released, willingly, months ago.

I’ll admit that, at this point, it’s hard for some members of the Board to sway the negative perception that many people have of them. But some of the recent dialogue that’s been in the press only adds to these perceptions. When Penn State Trustee Paul Suhey told the Centre Daily Times last week that the Board didn’t fire Paterno, they merely retired him three weeks early, he added fuel to the fire. It’s hard to believe that someone who claims to be in touch with the feelings of Penn Staters could make such a statement. Mincing words is what got Penn State into this situation.

The Board seems determined to make things right with investigators and the NCAA, but it’s time that board members remember that alumni relations should be a top priority. Of the Freeh Report recommendations, which Penn State is rightfully eager to implement, there are only a few that could better communications between the Board and its constituencies. The easiest of these recommendations (identified as Board of Trustees Contact) is establishing public, University-email addresses for the Board members. This is a good idea—no doubt there are plenty of Penn State supporters who would like to communicate directly with the Board. But eight months later, there are no established email addresses. As of January, the university noted that this recommendation was under review.

Maybe the lack of communication avenues has to do with the inability to control the message. Stephanie Nolan Deviney, a current trustee running for re-election, has established a blog to answer frequently asked questions. I don’t want to pick on Deviney since she is one of the few Board members who has started a dialogue and I respect her for that. But her admission that she had to use Google to find out about the Sandusky scandal is a serious sign of disconnect between the Board and the university, especially since an article about the grand jury investigation had been published in the Patriot News months earlier.

Make no mistake — what Jerry Sandusky did to those boys was horrible. No one denies that. What many of us do wonder, though, is how much Penn State has to shoulder the blame.

I believe that most of the Penn State community is desperate for someone to stand up for the University and take action as needed. Maybe some of the people who can do that are on the Board now or are running in this election. Based on Twitter talk and message boards there seems to be a growing movement to finally defend Penn State against the negative media attention and baseless sanctions. It’s sad, though, that this has to be coordinated by independent researchers and interest groups. Imagine how different things might be if that movement was being led by the Board. Imagine how different things might be if, instead of accepting the Freeh report and the NCAA sanctions, the Board had said “Hold on, let’s talk about this.”

You don’t need a degree in crisis management or public relations to realize that this has gone very wrong.

I think it’s too late for most of the Board members to regain the trust of the alumni. For most of them, it’s time to move on.

Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at [email protected]
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