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Penn State Trustees Have Conflicting Views on Reform

by on March 06, 2014 5:21 PM

For the first time, a recently hired consultant met with the Penn State Board of Trustees Governance and Long-Range Planning Committee to start a formal process for board reform.

In November, the board hired Holly Gregory of Sidley Austin LLP, a law firm based in New York City to evaluate the effectiveness of the 32-member board. During a special meeting, Gregory spoke to the full board publicly and in an executive session.

The committee's meeting Thursday in Hershey was the first opportunity for Gregory to sit with the committee as a whole and discuss goals when it comes to proposals to alter the board.

Through one on one discussions with board members since January, Gregory outlined what appear to be the desires of the board.

In terms of the board's size, some members want to see it increase while others want to see it decrease.

In terms of qualifications, some members want specific requirements outlined for someone to join the board.

And in regards to term limits, which is now 12 years, some members want to see the limit apply to board members who were on the board prior to the change.

The lack of consensus among committee members in terms of how to reform the full board was evident during Thursday's meeting when members voiced conflicting viewpoints on several issues.

For example, member Barbara Doran would like to see the new 12-year term limit grandfathered in for previously-elected members. At the same time, member Carl Shaffer says the term limit matter was recently visited and doesn't need to be a priority now.

In terms of the board's size, member Jim Broadhurst says he doubts the board could be as productive it had had fewer members especially because members are needed for multiple committees.

"When I look at us starting to shrink a little bit it worries me particularly with the overlaps we have on committees," he says. "I worry about the effectiveness of our committees."

At the same time, Doran says the size of the board can hinder participation. If a group is too large, some members may be less likely to be active in discussion.

"It's a question of engagement," she says. "That to me is the issue."

There has been much discussion among board members, state lawmakers and other regarding board reform in the wake of the former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.

However, outgoing board member Marianne Alexander reminded the committee that eight years ago the board was recognized for its structure.

"Just because we had a horrible thing happen suddenly we have this terrible system – I don't believe that," she says.

Doran countered that thinking by comparing the situation to that of the financial collapse in 2008 banks.

"A big stress test came and we didn't do so well," she says.

Still, board Chairman Keith Masser says the board has changed significantly in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. "We are in a different place than we were two years ago to handle the stress test," he says.

To move forward, the committee tasked Gregory with pulling data from other universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, Lincoln University, Big Ten schools, and other schools with similar characteristics. The plan is to compare their board operations to Penn State's structure.

If the board doesn't reform itself, the state legislature is equipped to do so. State Sen. John Yudichak introduced legislation in January that would significantly alter the Board of Trustees structure at Penn State University.

Senate Bill 1240, the Penn State University Board of Trustees Reorganization Act, would reduce the board of trustees from 30 to 23 voting members. The bill would also prohibit the governor, lieutenant governor and all state row officers, such as treasurer and auditor general, from serving on the board.

"The issue could be who makes that decision – the state or us," Doran says.

In related news, the committee approved a measure to allow the full board, if needed, appoint a student representative if Gov. Tom Corbett fails to do so by July. The concern is that Corbett may not nominate, and the state Senate approve the nomination, in time for that student to participate in the July tuition talks. The current student representative, Peter Khoury, graduates in May.

The committee approved the measure with only Anthony Lubrano opposed.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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