Experts say Penn State University panel should have outsiders, too
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Penn State University is poised to name members of an investigative committee that school leaders hope will rebuild public trust by being objective and representative of the school's varied constituencies.
The panel will have student representation. It will include faculty and alumni, too.
And no fewer than six Penn State trustees will be asked to serve.
But in filling seats, the public university appears in danger of overlooking another of its key constituencies -- the public.
University statements in recent days have strongly suggested that the panel charged with impartially and thoroughly examining the worst scandal in Penn State's history will be limited to those with university ties.
Observers ranging from watchdog groups and ethicists to those who have sat on such committees say having independent members with no ties to the institution can lend more credibility to findings.
Penn State trustees announced the panel in the wake of a child sex abuse scandal that led to the firing last Wednesday of football coach Joe Paterno and the departure by mutual agreement of President Graham Spanier. They and others faced withering criticism for Penn State's failure to alert law enforcement to allegations that retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a campus shower in 2002.
"If part of the goal is to increase trust in the institution, then it makes a lot of sense to have outsiders," said Edward Queen, who teaches applied and professional ethics at the Emory University Center for Ethics. "Outsiders bring potentially different sets of questions and different ways of looking at the question. Outsiders as a rule don't have a visceral defensiveness that insiders might tend to have."
He said it is possible to get an impartial result from a panel of members tied to the institution, but he added, "You're always going to be struggling with the appearance."
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, said outside members make sense in particular for an institution that gets part of its budget from taxpayers. "It would behoove them to bring in some outside ethics expertise to help them find their way through the weeds of this scandal," he said.
Asked how Penn State would ensure objectivity without independent members, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers stopped short Tuesday of saying they would be added to the committee. But her email response indicated the matter is now under review.
"The board is taking this into account and the makeup or oversight will address this issue," she said without elaborating. "Right now we have to wait until the committee is in place and fully charged before we can release any more information."
When the question arose at a news conference Friday, newly appointed President Rodney Erickson said that while the findings will be made public, the investigation itself must be conducted with confidentiality.
One of three independent members who joined a West Virginia University committee investigation into the school's improper awarding of an MBA degree didn't find leaks to be a problem on her panel and said some simple instruction can promote discretion. Three of the five committee members had no ties to WVU.
"You tell them everything you see and hear is confidential," said Lori Franz, a professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Another independent member on that committee, Arthur Centonze, dean emeritus and professor of economics at Pace University, agreed. He said having outsiders brought a degree of legitimacy to the WVU investigation "that might not have been possible if the panel was composed entirely of insiders."
First Published November 16, 2011 12:00 am