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Penn State Trustees Overhaul Committee Structure

on March 16, 2012 6:10 PM

HERSHEY -- Voting without dissent, the Penn State trustees fully revamped their committee structure Friday for the first time in decades.

The move -- replacing three oversight committees with five new ones -- should strengthen the board's ties with the university community and its overall governance, trustees said. With the overhaul, employee, alumni and student advisers will now join the committees on an as-needed, non-voting basis, university documents show.

"I think (the restructuring) will be a very significant improvement for the operations of the board" and the university at large, President Rodney Erickson told reporters after a board meeting at Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. He said the new approach should help ease the flow of information -- and perspectives -- among trustees and administrators.

Specifically, the plan will eliminate three standing committees on educational policy, campus environment, and finance and physical plant. In their place will be five new committees that -- per a university statement -- "more closely align with university operations."

The committees will center on academic life and student affairs; finance, business and capital planning; governance and long-range planning, risk, compliance, legal affairs and audits; and outreach, development and community relations. Each new committee will include at least six appointed members serving one-year terms, Penn State reported.

The board chairwoman -- or chairman -- will make the committee-member appointments after consulting with the university president, according to Penn State.

Karen Peetz, appointed the board chairwoman in January, said she and Vice Chairman Keith Masser developed the new committee concept.

They think it addresses "some of the current issues" that have unfolded for the board since November, when alleged child-sexual-abuse and cover-up allegations emerged, Peetz said.

But the changes, crafted with guidance from the Association of Governing Boards, also "look forward" for longer-term needs, she went on.

"We feel really good about it," Peetz said in a pre-meeting interview. "But it's not that it's cast in stone. It could evolve. It could change as we go forward."

In approving the new structure Friday, other trustees said they, too, want the new arrangement to be fluid and open to ongoing revisions. Trustee Keith Eckel called it "a learning process for all of us."

Talking with reporters, Eckel said he thinks the new arrangement will "empower the Board of Trustees to focus on more areas of oversight" and "equip us to provide better oversight."

He pointed specifically to human resources, a subject that will have its own subcommittee under the new structure. That's a new development, Eckel said. Before, the board addressed human-resources issues more narrowly through a compensation subcommittee -- not larger, overarching HR matters.

"I think the board has a responsibility for human-resource activities in addition to compensation," Eckel said.

Asked if better HR oversight could have prevented crisis-related problems Penn State faces now, Eckel said any answer at this stage would be only a guess. The university needs to await results of ongoing investigations, including one by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Eckel said.

Per university bylaws, the standing committees are meant to help foster board consideration of key business and management concerns at Penn State. Committees often will study a matter or policy before it moves on to the full, 32-voting-member board for final consideration and a vote.

Here's a more detailed look at the new committees:

  • Committee on Academic Affairs and Student Life: This group will handle board recommendations related to faculty, instruction, research, continuing education and student life.
  • Committee on Finance, Business and Capital Planning: This group will address issues centered on budgets, human resources, investments, contracts, grants, fees, room-and-board charges and long-range financial planning. It will count three subcommittees.
  • Committee on Governance and Long-Range Planning: This group will share advice on strategies and practices to organize and assess overall board performance. Its duties also will include any changes to the board code of conduct and the recommendation of emeritus status for departing trustees.
  • Committee on Risk, Compliance, Legal and Audit: This group will monitor university financial statements, financial trends and economic events. To include two subcommittees, it also will work to focus the university's potential legal liability.
  • Committee on Outreach, Development and Community Relations: This group will center on educating the public and the university community about the board and about the university itself.

Peetz has put a central emphasis on reform in her role as board chairwoman. She said this week that the committee restructuring is a first step and that "nothing is off the table" as the board rethinks its work.

Also Friday, the board picked its Executive Committee for 2012. It includes Peetz, Masser, Eckel, Erickson, Mark Dambly, Kenneth Frazier, Jim Broadhurst, Marianne Alexander and Linda Strumpf.

In other activity at the Friday meeting:

  • Board members approved a name change and reorganization for the Department of African and African American Studies. A new Department of African American Studies will focus on African American subjects, while the new African Studies Program will be a separate unit, according to a news release. Previously, one small department had "been trying to cover two huge areas," Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, said in the release.
  • The board agreed to a $94.1 million renovation project for the South Halls residential complex at University Park. Work will begin in the spring and continue through December 2014. The project will include the addition of a new building and "significant, long-deferred infrastructure upgrades," a news release reads. A combination of reserve money and debt will pay for the work. South Halls' four existing buildings, constructed in 1957, have had no major renovations or upgrades until now, according to Penn State.
  • Board members appointed Butler-based Stantec Inc. as the architect handling renovations for Mueller and Whitmore laboratories at University Park. Built in 1965 and 1953, respectively, the labs are in dire need of upgrades, according to a university presentation.
  • Several members of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship attended part of the meeting, some wearing shirts that spelled out "R-E-S-I-G-N." The group has flayed the board for its treatment and firing of Joe Paterno in November. Board critic Franco Harris held another of his "real talk" events Friday in Hershey, too. The Centre Daily Times covered it.

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