Penn State compensation panel couched in secrecy

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UNIVERSITY PARK -- Amid legislative efforts to bring it fully under the state's public records law, Penn State University created a compensation committee Friday to set pay for its president and other top executives including salary and incentives.

But officials of the state's flagship public university suggested after Friday's decision by trustees that the new panel will not set those pay levels by public vote.

Penn State also declined to say if all compensation approved by the committee would be treated as public information, as would be required of an institution fully covered by Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law.

In an interview after the board of trustees met, trustee Keith Eckel, whose committee on governance recommended the new panel, suggested that only compensation policies will be set in public. He further suggested the panel would go no further in releasing pay information than dictated by the Sunshine Law.

"I've got to think about what Sunshine requires," he said. "When it is a personnel matter, Sunshine doesn't cover that. But if it's not a personnel matter and it's anything with philosophy then it will be in the public session."

Meanwhile, Penn State Friday defended a recommendation discussed during a committee meeting Thursday to add a 50-percent tuition surcharge on credits beyond 18 taken by a student in a semester. It is among 45 recommendations to alter price policies that also include tuition increases for more costly or in-demand majors, a $500-per-semester fee for international students and flexibility that could let Western Pennsylvania campuses facing enrollment losses charge less. No vote on them was taken.

Reacting to trustee and state legislator concerns that a surcharge past 18 credits might slow students trying to finish degrees, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers Friday called the surcharge standard higher education practice and said the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and the State System of Higher Education have similar policies.

She said few students take 19 credits and a surcharge would discourage those who might register for courses "they don't really intend to complete."

On Friday morning, in a session prior to the board meeting, former Sen. George Mitchell, the university's athletics integrity monitor, said for now Penn State is unlikely to get a further reprieve from NCAA sanctions imposed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. But at his upcoming annual report next September he said he could propose more reductions to the sanctions as part of a multi-phased process if Penn State continues to improve its oversight and governance.

Asked by trustee Alvin Clemens about a lifting of the football bowl ban, Mr. Mitchell said it was premature to discuss specifics.

A number of legislators supporting Right to Know bills covering Penn State say they believe strongly that the public should know what the university compensates individual employees, including top executives, given the tax dollars it receives.

Unlike schools covered fully by Right to Know, Penn State need not disclose what it compensates any of its thousands of employees for months. When it does, total compensation must be disclosed only for university officers and the five highest-paid non-officers, as well as the university's 25 highest salaries.

Pitt also is not fully covered by Right to Know. But a trustee compensation committee there votes publicly each year on all compensation paid to the chancellor and to deputies, and it releases the figures immediately.

Mr. Eckel noted creation of the compensation committee was motivated less by Right to Know pressure and more by governance concerns and the Freeh report.

Also at Friday's meeting, the board agreed to hire Holly J. Gregory, a partner in the New York law firm of Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, as a consultant on proposed trustee governance changes including a reduction in board size.

Trustee chairman Keith Masser appeared to head off a board squabble related to its troubled presidential search by announcing the addition of alumni-elected trustee William Oldsey to the selection council.

The move follows ongoing complaints that the panel did not adequately represent insurgent alumni trustees elected to the board amid fallout from the Sandusky scandal. The move also came a day after complaints that not all trustees are being briefed on the search spilled over into a trustee committee meeting.

A statement posted to Penn State's website Friday said Mr. Oldsey's addition is intended "to bring a fresh perspective to the search process."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 or on Twitter @mdent05. First Published November 22, 2013 3:38 PM

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