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Penn State Board of Trustees Members Clash Over Questions of Reform

by on August 15, 2014 1:30 PM

When it comes to reform, members of the Penn State Board of Trustees are able to agree on some issues, but sparks still flew at a board committee meeting on Friday.

The Governance and Long-Range Planning Committee met to discuss three different formal proposals to alter the board’s structure. A document outlining each of these proposals, all of which would reduce the number of voting members on the board, can be read here.

The issue that caused the greatest divide among committee members is the appropriate number of alumni-elected trustees.

Continuing a trend seen in past board conversations, the trustees elected by the alumni argued for the increasing importance of alumni-elects, while other members of the committee argued that the number of alumni-elected seats should be decreased.

Trustee Richard Dandrea, who was appointed by a business and industry board, said “it’s not radical, it’s not draconian” to suggest reducing the number of alumni-elects from nine to six. This reduction would mean that there would be an equal number of business and industry trustees, agriculture society-appointed trustees and those elected by alumni.

“Fair does not mean equal,” alumni-elected trustee Anthony Lubrano responded.

Lubrano argued that the attempt to reduce these seats “is about power, and it’s about control.” He said the largest group with a stake in the future of the university is Penn State alumni, who greatly outnumber representatives from agriculture, business and industry.

Dandrea responded that only a “micro-minority” of alumni participate in elections. Because of this, he said it would be reasonable to argue for a much smaller number of alumni seats.

“There have been cries that this was an assault on the alumni who vote, and an attack on the alumni-elected trustees,” Dandrea said. “It’s not. This a well-reasoned and moderate proposal.”

Though they didn’t come to a consensus on the issue, they didn’t have to. Committee chairman Keith Eckel says that these issues are important enough to warrant further discussion before voting on what proposal to recommend to the full board.

The remaining committee members agreed, opting to continue this discussion through September and bring a recommendation to the full board in October.

"I don't worry about the criticism of being slow,” Trustee Daniel Mead said. “I'm more worried about not doing the right thing."

Members of the committee also unanimously agreed on the importance of having a student trustee on the board.

During a discussion on how a student trustee should be selected, University Park Undergraduate Association Vice President Emily McDonald said it was “a little insulting” to think the governor of the state had more insight into student trustee appointments than the UPUA. This seemed to convince the members of the committee, who agreed that students should select a student trustee. 

Committee members also agreed that ex officio members of the board – trustees who sit on the board by virtue of holding another office, such as the governor – should not have voting power. Despite this, they disagreed on exactly what cabinet members from state government should be granted ex officio status.

They also disagreed on the ideal size of the board. Trustee Barbara Doran cited a number of studies that conclude that large governance boards lead to lower trustee engagement and decreased participation. In response, Board of Trustees Chairman Keith Masser argued that having more trustees enriches conversation and encourages debate.

Mark Mekilo, chief counsel to State Sen. Vincent Hughes, also spoke to the committee on behalf on State Sen. John Yudichak, who has proposed legislation that would alter the structure of the board. Senate Bill 1240 would reduce the voting members of the board from 30 to 23, and was passed with unanimous support from the State Government Subcommittee in June.

Trustees expressed various concerns about the bill, with some suggesting that it represents an undue influence on the board from state government. Mekilo responded that the bill “is a fluid document” and that Yudichak is open to continuing this conversation with the board.

The committee also debated the place of faculty representation, alumni association representation, committee selection processes, the role of emeritus trustees and other issues. 

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Michael Martin Garrett is a general assignment reporter for StateCollege.com, a graduate of Penn State and a published poet. He's also a musician who plays bass in an indie rock band.
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