Penn State urged to make hiring and pay choices public

Trustee panel meets in private today on football coach

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Today's meeting of Penn State University's compensation committee -- a session likely to involve the school's next football coach -- looms as a test of how the university will handle public disclosure in the post-Jerry Sandusky era.

The trustee panel was created in November to set pay for the university's president and other top executives, including salary and incentives.

At the time, Penn State leaders would not commit the panel to either voting publicly on those pay packages or to promptly providing details, even though such pay disclosures are routine elsewhere. But Penn State also chafed at any suggestion it therefore was allowing the committee to set pay packages in secret -- a prospect that drew sharp criticism from state officials.

In a letter to the editor published Dec. 1 in the Post-Gazette, Penn State trustees chairman Keith Masser said the school would explore what comparable schools do and urged the public "to allow for the committee to actually meet and establish policies before drawing conclusions."

So attention will be focused on this morning's special meeting being held by teleconference, and not just because there is mammoth public interest in knowing what a top-tier coach is worth to an elite football program.

Those trying to bring Penn State fully under Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law -- though they acknowledge the effort has stalled in the Legislature -- nevertheless said they hope any decision today on a coach's contract would be handled as if Penn State were fully under the law.

"I'm hoping that they will take the vote in public," said state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, whose legislation would bring Penn State as well as the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities completely under Right-to-Know.

Just as important, he said, details of the pay package should be promptly released.

"I'm hoping that as someone who believes that Penn State is perhaps one of the best universities in the nation, that they just make this a public document and move forward," he said.

Mr. Conklin and state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said it's a matter of the public's right to know how business is conducted at a public university that receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

"You can certainly negotiate in private. I get that," Mr. DePasquale said. "But at the end of the day, the salary clearly should be public."

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers did not respond to an email query Friday about today's closed-door session at 8:30 a.m., to be followed by a brief public meeting.

The university has not identified the individual who is the focus of today's committee meeting or even if it involves the football program. However, Penn State has set a 4:15 p.m. news conference at Beaver Stadium for "a major announcement" and national media outlets including ESPN have reported that Vanderbilt University coach James Franklin is likely to accept an offer from Penn State.

Unlike universities covered fully by Right to Know, Penn State need not disclose until months later what it agrees to pay any of its thousands of employees. When it does, total compensation must be released 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.

Accusations starting in 2011 that Penn State leaders covered up child sexual assaults by Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, sparked efforts to force the state's flagship public university to disclose more of its workings.

When former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien was hired in January 2012, his salary was released immediately by the school, but details of the entire contract were not released until a month later. The contract was put on the Penn State website, as was Mr. O'Brien's new contract when it was amended in June 2013. In the last year, Mr. O'Brien made $3.3 million.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 or on Twitter @mdent05.

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