Barbara Doran - Independent. Accountable. Resolute.

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The Issues

 

Introduction

Despite the tumult of recent months, Penn State retains its status as a modern, world-class research university, with the #1 educational online site (World Campus) sharing our resources worldwide. Public service and outreach on a global level, while educating generations of Pennsylvanians, remain fundamental to Penn State's stated mission of "Teaching, Research, Service." Our students are as proud and hardworking as our alumni are loyal and generous. Our faculty members have records of accomplishment and achievement the equal of anywhere. Finding the right President as quickly as a thorough search process allows is critical to setting a new direction and to retaining top faculty and deans.

But old challenges remain and new ones have emerged that threaten our preeminence. Whether it is the unsustainable, ever-increasing tuition that has priced some out of a college education while burdening many with heavy debt for years to come; or the impact and continuing fallout from the Sandusky scandal, there are many issues and challenges that make strong and intelligent leadership more important than ever. The board can be a powerful force to move us forward, but until the board reforms itself, its ability to do so is seriously compromised. We all had and have access to the same facts, yet many of us have arrived at very different conclusions than the board members who have been our stewards.

Here is my take on some of the issues before us, and what I will focus on whether on the board or not.

Restoring Penn State's reputation for "Success with Honor"

Penn State has become publicly and unfairly synonymous with Sandusky's crimes. Mistakes made in response to the first media reports of the indictments set the stage. Forcing the resignation of Graham Spanier and firing Joe Paterno-- without any investigation whatsoever -- effectively told the world that we had indeed covered up the heinous actions of a now-convicted pedophile -- a cover-up which has not been proven – and left us rudderless and without leadership in our hour of greatest need. The ensuing media firestorm damaged our reputation and those of key individuals. Later, accepting both the Freeh report and NCAA sanctions without a whisper of protest further confirmed the public's perception that we knowingly harbored a pedophile.

Moving forward does not mean dropping our arms to take the punches, removing statues to erase our past, clinging to positions that have proven to be wrong, or letting others define us and tell us who we are. Moving forward means fighting back against false accusations and actions, taking accountability for mistakes made, and searching relentlessly for the truth, whatever it is. We teach our young in the classroom that the pursuit of truth is a noble calling: it's time for us to show them how to live it. It is more than time to stand up for Penn State, its values, its culture and for the individuals that always put education and integrity first. For many, restoring Joe Paterno to a place of honor is a mission without end.

Board Values

Every board member must enlarge his or her view of what the university's broader responsibilities are. They must look to Penn State's broader constituency, which is beyond the staff, faculty and students, to the public at large, indeed, to all of humanity. We are one of the largest universities not only in the country but also in the world. Whether we like it or not, this scandal is the prism through which we will be seen for a long time to come. We must set new standards for ourselves, and for our students, and we must live up to them.

The board needs members who are independent and fair-minded, who have strong beliefs in the importance of transparency and accountability, and who are unafraid to stand up to each other, to the board and university leadership, and to the public.

They must remember the proud history of our university and those who have contributed to making it so while setting a new path forward.

NCAA Penalties

The university leadership should not have accepted the sanctions, no matter how onerous the threats. The NCAA's penalties are extremely harsh and unnecessarily punitive, not to mention that their actions were completely outside their own charter and process, and based on an incomplete and flawed report from the Freeh Group. It was within our rights to insist on a full investigation as outlined in the NCAA's own charter and to refuse to accept any sanctions not based on established NCAA practices.

But it is done. So where do we go from here? The university approach is to work closely with Senator Mitchell, the NCAA appointed monitor whose term extends for five years at an ultimate cost of millions to Penn State, and to rapidly implement operational and organizational recommendations from the Freeh report. That five-year probation can be cut to two years if the Senator recommends it, and many recommendations will streamline and improve our internal processes while putting needed safeguards in place.

Because the university leadership did not insist that the NCAA conduct their own investigation, the NCAA used the Freeh report as the basis for their decision. The board has so far refused to evaluate and comment on the Freeh report's validity, an incoherent and baffling stand given its importance in further setting public opinion against us, justifying the NCAA sanctions, and damaging the reputation of both the university and key individuals. They should reverse this stand immediately, and go back to the NCAA now and re-negotiate the consent decree. Although the university leadership signed off on the sanctions, that in no way means we cannot go back and ask to have it opened again.

Much new evidence and many new facts have emerged since the Freeh report was published, not to mention the ethical scandals currently engulfing the NCAA that have severely weakened any moral authority it may have had. We are in a very different place from which to negotiate and should move quickly.

Waiting for a new President to be hired would mean further delays of a year or more. The board has it in its power to move now, and should. The stakes are enormous.

Freeh Report

The board should make clear that the Freeh report, while making some good operational and organizational recommendations which are currently being implemented, was extremely limited in scope: they could not interview three of the four principal players due to death and legal issues, and dealt only with the immediate Penn State community. They made no attempt to interview anyone connected with The Second Mile or the Governor's office, critical players in this ongoing drama. It was not an exhaustive study, by any means, contrary to Freeh's assertions. The report also made assumptions of intent not grounded in hard fact, or by weighing the inconsistency of the principals' alleged behavior with their very long and public records of integrity in word and action that may have suggested an alternative explanation. Anecdotal evidence abounds from credible sources that Freeh investigators may have started with a pre-defined agenda not conducive to open and fair inquiry.

The report should have been positioned as one input among many, not the canonical document it has become to the public. By not reframing and marginalizing the very-flawed Freeh report, the board allowed it to become accepted fact. The board has publicly stated it will not review or comment on the report, and has never discussed it, an astounding and incomprehensible stand given the report's far-reaching and uniformly negative impact. Once again, by failing to tell our story, others tell it for us.

This must change and can.

Tuition Increases/Student Debt Crisis

Americans now owe more than $1 trillion in student loans. With the cost of college climbing each year 6-8%, that means costs are doubling every 9-12 years. The $28,000 that Penn State undergraduates are paying today is already beyond reach for many.

What can we do to stop price increases that far outpace the 3% inflation rate of recent years?

In addition to resolving the governance and leadership issues exposed in the recent crisis, the Board of Trustees must make affordability of a Penn State College education a Tier One issue and focus. An independent economic study of 2008 showed that Penn State is the single largest contributor to the state with a $17 billion impact, yet the state continues to cut allocations to us, contributing a mere 4% of the university budget last year. The Board of Trustees, which oversees management of the university and signs off on the budget, must focus not only on cutting costs and reining in spending, but ask again for much more help from Harrisburg on the revenue side.

Students are already shouldering an onerous debt burden, graduating into a jobless market unlikely to change dramatically any time soon, and cannot be asked to do more than their fair share any longer.

We must innovate in what we offer and how.

Governance and Board Structure: Revamping the Board

Faulty decision-making with far-reaching, long-lasting and extremely negative consequences is the issue here, and the question is could board restructuring lessen the possibility of future missteps? I would argue yes.

As the board is currently reviewing governance recommendations from the state, the Faculty Senate, and their own governance committee, it is my hope that the following is on the table for serious consideration.

Restructuring the 32-member board to make it smaller, more responsive and accountable for their actions, and having fewer appointed trustees, who by definition are not accountable to anyone other than their appointers, is an important building block. Large boards often mitigate against individual engagement and accountability, as power devolves to the more agile and focused Executive Committee. Most comparable institutions have boards of 12-20 members.

With the state contributing just 4% of our budget, do we need ten appointees of the governor (including the governor)? Why not reduce that to three while eliminating the heads of the three state departments (agriculture, education, conservation and natural resources), who by virtue of their positions must always put the interests of the governor and state first? The governor should have no vote for the same reason. The President should have no vote, either, as he or she is an employee who’s hiring, evaluation and job exit is determined by the board.

Do we need six members from the agricultural societies? That may have made sense in 1855, but does it today? Because Penn State has evolved in the modern era into a comprehensive university with dozens of fields of study, it might be advisable to revisit designated trustee positions for agriculture and industry and broaden the scope of disciplinary background.

Developing a transparent, rigorous process for nomination/election of trustees that can draw from a wider pool of candidates would serve us better. The current pay-for-play system for the alumni voting process, for instance, in which only donors and recent or current members of the Penn State Alumni Association are notified of the annual alumni board elections, is outmoded. With emails available for all graduating students, there is no reason not to email all alumni. A positive side effect would be the generation of qualified leads for the various fund-raising and alumni outreach areas of the university.

Every board needs independence and diversity in background and viewpoint to draw on – indeed, it is critical -- and a need to balance continuity and institutional memory with fresh perspectives and people who understand the culture but have some degree of distance. Besides a mix of lawyers, financial types, someone with real knowledge and understanding of public issues, a judge, an academician, a scientist, 2—3 CEO's, and so on, do we have gender and racial diversity? We have four women of 32 right now while 45% of students are women: do we need more? Are there enough Hispanic, African-Americans and Asians on the board to reflect the minorities on campus? Do we have a religious leader to remind the board of other priorities?

Board members are elected for three-year terms but can stay for 12 years, recently reduced from 15 years. However, all current board members were grandfathered in, insuring that those who have already served more than 30 and 40 years stay through 2018, delaying the much-needed infusion of fresh blood. Term limits should apply equally to all board members, with years served to date counting: worries over loss of institutional knowledge appear self-serving and unwarranted given the horrendous missteps of the last 18 months and that three quarters of the board would not be affected.

Restrictions on insiders moving from staff to trustee should apply as well to trustees moving to staff: trustees gain insider knowledge and perceived advantage, jeopardizing the appearance of independence and fairness. Safeguards against cronyism need to be established.

Yearly evaluations of the board's effectiveness should be conducted with the aid of outside independent consultants.

Incorporating best practices of governance elsewhere with a sense of Penn State's distinctive culture makes sense, and the sooner the better.

Transparency and Accountability

Despite some efforts to open up the board processes to the light of day, more needs to be done as regards the issues of transparency and accountability.

Board meetings and some committee meetings are now open to the public, with the new addition of time allotted for public commentary, an admirable change. But so far, the latter has not worked well. Time limits may be necessary but seem to be a bit too strictly invoked when it gets a little hot. After either not answering questions or giving vague answers, there is now a policy of the board to not answer at all, either in the meeting or after, which is puzzling. There have been tough questions and issues raised, and sometimes they are delivered with real heat, but all deserve an answer. Otherwise, it is a mere Potemkin village, a seeming ploy to placate the disgruntled, with no real give-and-take. The board should reverse this policy and respond to all issues and questions raised there. As the questions are submitted in advance, there is time to prepare.

The Fed is a model of transparency: dissenters are recorded by name and are free to discuss their views outside of meetings. If the most important, most influential committee in the world can do that (The Federal Open Market Committee), why can't we? Our board members should be free to voice their opinions, both inside and outside the meetings, and the minutes should reflect the details of important discussions, with a full accounting of who said what and how they voted. The proposed rule to expel board members who “fail to meet their fiduciary responsibilities or the expectations of being a board member” is ill-advised and easily abused to silence legitimate voices of change and opposition.

Every board member should have a university email posted on the BOT website through which anyone can reach them (an explicit Freeh report recommendation, by the way), an important way for board members to hear directly what their constituents are saying and vice versa.

Given all that has happened this past year, more not less transparency and accountability are needed.


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