The Faculty and the Trustees

March 15, 2013 at 11:14 am 4 comments

One difference between the Freeh report and the report of the Faculty Senate’s Special Committee on University Governance was made immediately apparent Tuesday afternoon by the committee’s chair, John Nichols. The cost of the Faculty Senate report, he said, was $100.58—for boxed lunches.

The Freeh report’s cost, by contrast, was adjusted upward to $8.1 million this week, so it’s no wonder Nichols’ accounting drew a loud round of applause at the Faculty Senate meeting. But Nichols, professor emeritus of communications and a former Faculty Senate chair, wanted to make clear that he wasn’t just pointing that out to be “smug.” He explained: “Internal expertise has been undervalued at Penn State—as at other universities.”

The Penn Stater looked at the Board of Trustees’ composition—and how it compares to that of other schools—last July. Click on the image to download our 4-page infographic.

The Faculty Senate committee report hasn’t received as much attention as the two previous ones that made recommendations on reforming Penn State’s governing structure, one by former FBI director Louis Freeh, the other by former Pennsylvania auditor general Jack Wagner. But it’s a substantial report—scholarly and well written—and one that’s well worth a read for anyone who cares about Penn State. Click here to read and/or download it.

(Update as of 11/10/14: That link on the Faculty Senate page no longer seems to work. Try here for a copy of the Senate committee’s report.)

“The members of the Special Committee clearly have the perspective—some may say, bias—of loyal Penn State insiders and hereby acknowledge it,” the report says. “At the same time, it is hoped that the perspective evident in this report will complement as well as contrast that of outside agencies, consultants, and investigators who have recently passed judgment on Penn State based on a limited—and sometimes flawed—understanding of the institution.”

This understanding is evident from the beginning of the report, which documents Penn State’s growth—in size and in academic standing—over the past 40 years, and fleshes out the relationship between Penn State and the state of Pennsylvania, which is more complicated than many realize.

The report makes 23 recommendations, including adding two faculty members to the Board of Trustees, but it’s the discussions and rationales behind those recommendations that are particularly thought-provoking.

The gist is this: Penn State’s Board of Trustees would benefit from having members with specific experiences that would qualify them to be trustees—essentially, to understand how higher education works, which isn’t the same as understanding how a Fortune 500 company or a farm works—and that those qualifications, not what specific constituent group someone represents, should determine whether someone becomes a trustee. The report adds: “Further, the board should establish minimum qualifications for membership and a transparent and widely participatory nomination or vetting process to ensure the selection of qualified Trustees.”

Among the other points that stood out to me:

—Penn State’s board is “less diverse by gender, race, and ethnicity than for the average public university,” and that members are “on average significantly older” than those at other public universities.

—The changes in board composition recommended by Wagner would actually increase the governor’s influence on the board. Currently, the governor is a voting member, as are four members of the cabinet (political appointees) and six trustees who are gubernatorial appointments. Even removing the governor as a voting member (something that will be discussed during today’s Board of Trustees meeting in Hershey), still leaves about a third of the board under the governor’s control.

Wagner has also recommended removing the university president as a voting member (something else that will be discussed today). The committee writes, “these changes combined with the Auditor General’s formula for reducing the size of the board would significantly increase the external political control of the University and result in the complete loss of internal academic control.”

—The committee considers removing the university president as a voting member of the board as “largely a cosmetic change for the wrong reasons.” Their rationale: Penn State’s state-related status makes it a partly public, partly private university (the university receives only 4 percent of its budget from the state), and 76.4 percent of private universities do have the president as a voting member. They also write that “traditionally, the Board has reached important decisions informally,” taking voice votes in formal meetings, and that “until the full Board routinely holds roll-call votes on controversial and important matters in its public meeting, the question of whether the President has a formal vote does not seem especially significant.”

—The report notes that with 44 percent of Penn State’s trustees employed or previously employed in business, it’s natural for the board members to employ that lens as they make decisions. But it quotes from another report, by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, which stipulates the similarities between business and higher education but adds that universities “do not operate with a profit motive,” and that “they also differ from business in the sense that the processes of teaching, learning, and research often are at least as important as ‘the product,’ as measured by the conferring of degrees or the publication of research results.”

(Incidentally, we took a look at the Board of Trustees’ structure and how it compares to that of other schools in an infographic in our July/August 2012 issue. You can download a PDF of that infographic here.)

Obviously, the Faculty Senate’s special committee was formed in response to the Sandusky scandal and aftermath. But it didn’t set out to determine how events in that specific instance could have unfolded differently: “In considering its possible recommendations, the Special Committee asked whether such proposed changes would have made sense and benefited the University if the events of November 2011 had never occurred.” Nichols reiterated that point when asked a question about it at Tuesday’s Faculty Senate meeting.

The committee spent a long time studying the issue—the committee was formed in March 2012—and its report is wide-ranging. It lists five “overarching findings” that inform the entire 51-page document: (1) that higher education boards overall, and Penn State specifically, aren’t “fully conversant” on academic issues; (2) that Penn State’s top-down governance structure is incompatible with what’s supposed to be a shared governance system; (3) that the chance for substantial change has never been greater; (4) that change should be ongoing, not “one and done” in response to a crisis, and (5) this:

“Recovery from the recent crisis will be difficult—if not impossible—without a greater level of collaboration and communication among the Board, administration, faculty, and constituent groups, and such interactions must be conducted with the highest level of civility by all parties. This does not imply that there must be agreement on all matters, but rather that any disagreements must be resolved in an agreeable manner.”

Lori Shontz, senior editor

Entry filed under: Board of Trustees, The Penn Stater Magazine. Tags: , , , .

‘The Call’ Connection An Emotional Meeting of the Board of Trustees

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. R Thomas Berner  |  March 16, 2013 at 8:52 am

    In all my 28 years at PSU, shared governance was always honored in the breach. I’m skeptical that it will ever happen, but always hopeful.

  • […] already receiving reports on the subject from Louis Freeh, former auditor general Jack Wagner, and Penn State’s Faculty Senate has sparked anger and some ridicule among critics of the board. But Eckel said the trustees are not […]

  • […] (As usual, I feel compelled to point out that we at The Penn Stater benchmarked Penn State’s board against other Big Ten universities and land-grant universities in our July/August 2012 issue; click here for a PDF of our findings. I should also note that the Faculty Senate committee, which anyone who cares about governance issues should read, also did substantial work on benchmarking.) […]

  • […] and chair of the Faculty Senate’s special committee on university governance, which issued this report in 2013, made the case for a faculty representative on the board. He stressed two things: first, […]

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