Penn State trustees debate changes to board

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. – With legislation swirling in Harrisburg to overhaul Penn State University’s board of trustees, the trustees are discussing their own set of changes that could be recommended and voted on by September.

Thursday’s meeting at this remote Penn State campus provided a glimpse of how the board might prefer those changes. The takeaway: Most members don’t want the size of the board to be reduced, as Harrisburg does, but would welcome changes in its composition. The composition could be altered by the addition of a faculty trustee, a modified student trustee and a trustee from the alumni association.

“These are challenging issues, and no clear consensus has yet to emerge,” outside governance consultant Holly Gregory, an attorney with the firm Sidley Austin, told the board. “I do have faith that we can make progress.”

Representatives from the student body, the alumni association and the faculty presented their cases Thursday for representation or modified representation on the board.

John Nichols, professor emeritus of communications and international affairs, said the addition of faculty would give the board input from a person who is producing the university’s educational product. He gave the example of the Hershey Medical Center as a parallel. Its board contains three medical professionals.

“Nobody would question the logic of having a medical center with medical professionals on the board,” Mr. Nichols said. “Penn State has already done it, and it’s worked well.”

Though trustee Betsy Huber and trustee emeritus David Jones expressed hesitation at the idea because of the possibility of a conflict of interest, Mr. Nichols’ message received traction from the executive vice president and provost, Nicholas Jones, and university president Eric Barron. Mr. Barron said he was familiar with working with faculty and students on boards in previous jobs and valued their voices and the learning opportunities they provided.

“I had no sense of conflicts, conflicts of interest entering into this,” Mr. Barron said. “And I thought that a varying set of voices can add incredible value in multiple directions.”

Since the Sandusky sex abuse scandal, Penn State’s board has changed. The number of voting board members has been reduced from 32 to 30, and the governor and university president became ex-officio members. Further reductions likely won’t be championed by board members, however.

Ms. Gregory, the governance consultant, said most trustees didn’t want the board’s size to be reduced, but the recent board overhaul bill approved by the state Senate Government Committee calls for a reduction to 23 members, and trustees Barb Doran and Anthony Lubrano suggested on Thursday that a smaller board would improve accountability and engagement. The discussion of where these reductions would come led to a lively exchange among Mr. Lubrano, Ms. Doran, Keith Masser and Richard Dandrea.

Mr. Masser, an agricultural trustee, responded to the possibility of reducing the number of agricultural trustees by arguing that the nine alumni trustees, which include Mr. Lubrano and Ms. Doran, have an “overweighted” representation on the board.

Mr. Dandrea, a business and industry trustee, cited declining alumni vote totals since 2012 and said, “I think we have this bonafide question as to why alumni trustees should be outsized compared to the other groups.”

Ms. Doran said alumni trustees go through the most transparent election process. Alumni trustees must campaign for votes from Penn State alumni while agricultural trustees are elected through convention-style gatherings in which three delegates from each county vote for a candidate, and business and industry trustees are selected by a handpicked committee from the board.

“The alumni process could be emulated by others because it’s a model of transparency,” Ms. Doran said. “Anybody can vote and anybody can get elected.”

Also on Thursday, the Committee on Finance, Business and Capital Planning proposed a tuition increase of 2.99 percent for Penn State students at the University Park campus and an aggregate hike of 2.73 percent for all the campuses. The trustees are to vote on the tuition increase today.

If approved, the increase would occur even though the state appropriation of $214.1 million is staying the same as the previous year.

Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

First Published July 11, 2014 12:00 AM

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