UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the beginning of the Penn State Board of Trustees teleconference meeting Wednesday, chair Keith Masser announced over the phone that the board intended to vote on a resolution.
Simple, right? Not on this board and not when the topic is the NCAA consent decree.
With divisiveness as the rule and a public audience cheering for alumni trustees and often groaning at the so-called "old-guard" trustees -- a resolution passed for Penn State to endorse the continuation of the NCAA consent decree in ongoing settlement talks with the NCAA and state officials. Though the nine alumni trustees didn't agree with the course of action, they left feeling better for having forced a board discussion on the validity of the consent decree.
The settlement discussions are primarily between the NCAA and state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, and state Treasurer Rob McCord. They sued the NCAA to keep the $60 million fine in Pennsylvania (an action also supported by the board in the resolution Wednesday), and, in April 2013, the Commonwealth court upheld a law that would force the fine money to stay in-state.
The court also questioned the validity of the consent decree, the NCAA's basis for the 2012 sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case. A judge last week granted the NCAA and the Commonwealth a month to discuss settlements, and the two parties have asked Penn State to be part of those talks.
Alumni trustee Anthony Lubrano said the state officials were looking for consensus from the board and clearly didn't get it. Nineteen trustees voted in favor of the resolution, eight of nine alumni trustees voted against it, and two trustees abstained (alumni trustee Adam Taliaferro and student trustee Allison Goldstein). Lubrano hinted that the actions of the alumni trustees and their representation of "600,000 living alumni, many of whom live in Centre County," could influence the pols.
"Rob McCord and Senator Corman are now going to assess what today's vote means," Lubrano said. "And I would submit to you it means that this board is clearly divided."
That became clear when Masser brought up the resolution and disagreement ensued. It started, essentially, with a prolonged discussion about whether they could have a discussion. That tone carried throughout the hour-long meeting, the sides clearly defined.
The alumni trustees were unhappy with a resolution that endorsed the university's continued compliance with the NCAA consent decree, arguing that the NCAA unfairly attacked the university and condemned its culture. Alumni trustee Al Lord called for each trustee to vote with his or her individual conscience, saying the university needed to capitalize on the "opportunity" given to it by the Commonwealth court. But he didn't have much confidence in the majority of the board taking the alumni trustees' side.
"There's no question you have the votes," Lord said. "Otherwise you wouldn't be conducting this meeting."
Trustees who supported the resolution countered that officially questioning the consent decree would temper the progress the university has made in compliance with the NCAA. Ed Hintz said he believed alumni would prefer for the university to continue its course, given there are only two years left of the sanctions. Keith Eckel and Kathy Casey pointed out the possibility of sanction reduction if the university continues to comply with the consent decree.
"We can see the end of that," Eckel said. "I can't see end of that with legal battles."
As part of the consent decree, Penn State is banned from bowl games for the next two years and will have 15 fewer scholarships for football players than the maximum number allotted by the NCAA. The university also must pay the remaining $36 million of the $60 million fine.
Though the public wasn't allowed to comment, those present -- including Sue Paterno, Jay Paterno and Franco Harris -- contributed to a lively atmosphere. Early in the conference call, Lubrano jabbed at Eckel by saying it was a good thing Eckel wasn't board chair. The crowd laughed. Eckel then complained to Masser that the audience wasn't following "proper decorum."
When trustee Karen Peetz seconded a motion to vote on the resolution, the audience groaned.
At the end of the meeting, alumni trustee Bill Oldsey called for future special meetings to be held in person and for the trustees to have more advanced notice for important resolutions. Alumni trustees Oldsey, Lubrano, Lord, Barb Doran, Ryan McCombie, Ted Brown and university general counsel Stephen Dunham were the only board officials who participated in the teleconference from the Penn Stater.
"I would heartily endorse a policy among this board that when we meet on things this important in the future that we actually meet," Oldsey said.
"This telephonic nonsense I know is convenient for people, but, frankly, if you're truly an engaged trustee on this board you can get to State College and meet face-to-face.
"I'd like to look into the eyes of some people when we make these votes. I'd like to have right kind of exchange and discourse that a functional board should have."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published August 13, 2014 11:34 AM