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Peetz: PSU Board Changes Would Help Engage Community; Paterno, Spanier Statement 'Overdue'

on March 13, 2012 6:50 PM

A proposed overhaul of the Penn State trustees' committee structure would mark an initial step toward improved transparency and reform on the board, Chairwoman Karen Peetz said Tuesday afternoon.

The new committee concept, in part, "is meant to be outwardly looking, outwardly reaching and engaging" toward parties across the Penn State community, Peetz said, addressing the university Faculty Senate. She said the trustees are "interested in opening up debate."

Named the university board chairwoman in January, Peetz and the new vice chairman, Keith Masser, appeared before the senate for about 45 minutes, part of ongoing outreach efforts. Peetz opened with a brief overview of the board's structure, then launched into the proposed re-organizational plan that trustees will take up at their Friday meeting in Hershey.

In general terms, the proposal would replace three key standing board committees with five new ones. Gone would be the Committee on Campus Environment, the Committee on Educational Policy and the Committee on Finance and Physical Plant.

Newly formed would be a committee on academic affairs and student life; one on finance, business and capital planning; one on governance and long-range planning; one on risk, compliance, legal and audit; and one on outreach, development and community relations.

Peetz said the risk-and-compliance group would conduct a "deep assessment" of risks at Penn State and research best practices on that front at other universities.

It also would work across Penn State to address ethical and compliance issues, to prevent issues "that it sounds like might have happened on campus," Peetz said.

On the community-relations front, she said, the trustees would put an increasingly public emphasis on its outreach efforts. She also said the new committees would add faculty/staff, alumni and student advisors in non-voting capacities.

That should help the board become more engaging and incorporate new voices, she said.

The proposed changes, Peetz went on, are not intended as a final word on board reform. "We think that this will evolve," she said.

But board leadership, she said, "thought it was important to get going" with some initial changes.

In the question-and-answer session, Peetz noted that the board organization has been mostly unchanged since 1939. Asked if the board has considered changing its 32-strong voting membership, Peetz said that would require modifying board bylaws -- a long and nuanced process.

Had the board taken on that idea immediately, she said, it would not have been able to move forward so quickly with less-intensive changes, such as committee reorganization.

"Nothing is off the table," though, Peetz said. "The board is thinking these thoughts," such as reworking membership.

But "I think if we were to rush to judgment, that would not be responsible, either," she added. "I can assure you it's all being thought about."

Among other remarks at the Tuesday meeting:

  • Peetz said Penn State worked behind the scenes to try to drum up national media coverage of the university's annual dance marathon last month, but to little or no avail. The university is trying to put a public emphasis on its positive elements, though it expects "some incoming (bad-news) missiles here" in the next few months.
  • Given Penn State's steadily declining state support, Peetz and Masser have met with Cornell University representatives to learn more about that school's public-private organizational model. If Penn State moves toward a more private model, Peetz said, "I don't think it's going to be a quick ... decision." University leaders will want faculty input as that question lingers, she said.
  • The board's public statement on Monday, reiterating why it dismissed former President Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno as football coach, was "long overdue," Peetz said.

"If that had come out in December, it would have been ideal as an explanation," she said.

Peetz said the board tried to explain itself in January, when trustees spoke with The New York Times and other news organizations. But the Times' story "morphed into a more dramatic" piece, she said.

More recently, Peetz went on, board members disagreed over whether they should issue another public statement on the dismissals. But after hearing from alumni and university staff members especially, the board decided it needed to explain itself publicly again, she said.

Anyone can read the explanation on the Penn State website, she said, "and we don't have to be bogged down in the kind of gory details that we've been dragged down into." Peetz is hopeful that trustees won't need to explain themselves on that matter again, she said.

Also Tuesday, the Faculty Senate entertained a motion from member Albert Luloff. He suggested the group make a statement that, in essence, university employees should not be dismissed solely over subjective assessments of moral behavior.

The move would, in part, help restore some honor to Paterno, Luloff said. University board members have cited leadership and moral failures in explaining their removal of Paterno as head coach in November.

But senate members defeated the Luloff proposal, largely a symbolic measure, in a 125-68 vote.

The measure could have been perceived "as saying we're not concerned about morality and ethics" in leadership, said one dissenter, Christian Brady. He's the honors-college dean.

Another dissenter, liberal-arts faculty member Carrie Eckhardt, said she doesn't think it's possible to specify in writing all things that could be fireable offenses.

In its final action Tuesday, though, the senate did pass a general resolution honoring the late Paterno -- who died Jan. 22 -- and his accomplishments. There was no dissent.

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