Trustees Struggle to Find Consensus on Board Reform

March 7, 2014 at 11:56 am 1 comment

Perhaps in this case, the best place to start is the end.

Two hours into the Board of Trustees’ governance and long-range planning committee meeting Thursday afternoon in Hershey, chair Keith Eckel decided the group needed another session before its next scheduled meeting in May. The board’s governance consultant, Holly Gregory, agreed and pushed for a substantial chunk of time to find some consensus on what reforms to pursue—and to understand why those reforms are needed.

“We need to drill down,” Gregory said. “I’m still really, really challenged because I need to make sure we have a sense of what we are trying to move on. And it’s difficult to come up with ideas of what we’re going to do when we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve. That was my hope. I have some sense of that on the size (of the board) issue, but we haven’t had the time to go down as deep as I’d like.”

Then she added, “I’m supposed to help facilitate. Not come up with my own reform proposal. I can easily come up with one based on what I’ve heard, but that really isn’t the task as I understand that.”

The committee members and Penn State staff pulled out their calendars and started tossing out suggestions. None worked. (Perhaps a suggestion from the media seats—why not do a Doodle poll?—would have helped.) These are busy people, people with calendars full of other board meetings, vacations, grandchildren. The upcoming celebration of Penn State’s capital campaign took up a few days, as did the ag trustees election and the counting of alumni election votes. At one point, Anthony Lubrano ’82, one of the board’s most vocal critics, even after joining it, noted a week he was unavailable, prompting Jim Broadhurst ’64, an executive committee member and former board chair who has served since 1998, to quip, “Might be a good week to have it, then.”

Everyone laughed, even Lubrano, who said, “I gave you a softball, Jim—if you couldn’t hit that one …”

Consensus was almost impossible to find. They tentatively settled on May 7, the day before the officially scheduled governance committee meeting, and according to attorney Frank Guadagnino ’78, responding to a question from Jesse Arnelle ’55, ’62g, that meeting should be open to the public.

It’s no secret, of course, that Penn State’s board is divided and that proceeding on the next part of governance reform, which involves the size and composition of the board, plus qualifications for trustees, was going to be difficult. That’s why the governance committee said it hired Gregory, to help members find the right path.

The board’s stated intent is to vote on a reform package in the fall. But the trustees entered Thursday’s meeting, their first public discussion on reform with Gregory, having not yet determined which data they needed or which universities they wanted to use as benchmarks. After a lengthy back-and-forth, that was settled. (And if they want more data, they are welcome to check out a feature from our July/August 2012 issue in which we compared the size and composition of Penn State’s board to those of other Big Ten, land-grant, and Pennsylvania universities.)

Even a potential reform that has widespread support—the addition of a permanent student trustee, necessary because there’s no guarantee of student representation, only a tradition that a student is of the six trustees appointed by the governor—required a sustained, sometimes contentious, discussion.

The issue has some urgency because the current student trustee, Peter Khoury, is graduating in May, and the board realized that unless it acts, it could be without a student representative when tuition is set at its July meeting. Eckel said Gov. Tom Corbett has assured that he will select Khoury’s successor in plenty of time to have the selection ratified by the state senate, but the committee wanted a back-up plan in case that doesn’t work.

The plan: for the committee to vote on the permanent student trustee reform immediately, but bring the item to the full board for the necessary approval only if the process in place now hasn’t moved forward by the next meeting. There’s a chance that the full board will not vote on this in May. But this action separated the student trustee from the rest of the reform package, which does not yet exist.

The student trustee position involves three changes: The size of the board would increase from 32 members to 33 (both numbers include non-voting trustees) because the governor would still have six appointments. The board itself would select the student trustee, but the University Park Undergraduate Association, the Graduate Student Association, and the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments would recommend that student. And the student trustee term would be two years, not three, to make it less likely that students would have to choose a freshman.

Barbara Doran ’75 suggested that Khoury stay on, that he could still represent student interests as an extremely recent graduate. (His term doesn’t officially expire until November; he has agreed to resign to make way for a student-chosen trustee.) The committee’s student representative, Molly Droelle, the president of CCSG, said that is unacceptable to students: “That’s a very strong point for us.”

Vice president for administration Tom Poole told the committee that the governor makes his decision after student organizations recommend one or two candidates and the state secretary of education (also a trustee) interviews the candidates. Richard Dandrea ’77 noted that the board could decide to make the student trustee position permanent but officially designate that trustee as one of the governor’s appointees.

“Not in the eyes of the students,” Droelle said. “That’s not the proposal.”

“I know that’s in the eyes of the students,” Dandrea said. “I like your vigorous advocacy. I’ll write your recommendation for law school. But I’m just saying, that’s another alternative we should consider.”

That idea was discussed but never brought forth for official consideration.

Lubrano objected to the item because it was separated from other potential reforms and because while the issue of the student trustee has been discussed generally in committee, he hadn’t seen this official proposal until the meeting. He insisted on a roll call vote, and the proposal passed 8-1, with his dissent.

“It’s imprudent to move forward with one part without talking about the whole,” he said.

Dealing with that whole, however, is proving difficult. And the proverbial devil, it became clear as the meeting progressed, is not only in the details, but in the overall philosophies of board members.

Board reform became a hot topic after the Sandusky scandal, when the board was criticized for its actions, particularly not knowing that Jerry Sandusky was under investigation before he was charged, the decision to fire Joe Paterno and how it was carried out, and the handling of the Freeh report. Alumni trustee Marianne Ellis Alexander ’62, who was on the board in 2011 and is not running for re-election, addressed that issue head-on late in Thursday’s meeting.

She referenced a  report by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges from the late 2000s that cited Penn State’s board as a model of good governance because of the diversity of constituencies represented on the board (alumni, agriculture, business, state officials) and the diversity of ways in which they are chosen (direct election, self-selection, appointees).

“I don’t want to lose sight of that,” she said. “And also, since eight years ago … there’s been a steady evolution toward board reform that means every member of this board is more included and feels more engaged. Really, it’s been a revolution.

“And I think what we are doing here today is on a continuum. I just don’t want us to lose sight of that. Just because we had a terrible thing happen, suddenly we have this terrible system. I don’t believe that.”

Doran, a private wealth manager at Morgan Stanley who was elected by the alumni post-scandal, answered by citing the nation’s financial crisis of 2008. “Most of the banks concerned were very well run, had risk management systems, everything looked good—and then fell apart when they failed the ultimate stress test. … A stress came (to Penn State), and it hurt us. Wall Street has been undergoing massive reform. I think that’s where we are now. We need to continue to look at how to improve.”

Alexander, one of two voting members of the board with a higher education background, responded, “I don’t like the idea of Penn State being compared to those financial institutions.”

Replied Doran, “It’s out there.”

The back-and-forth called back to how Gregory began her section of the meeting, which was billed on the agenda as “facilitated discussion of governance considerations with consultant.”

She said: “We need to ask, ‘Is change likely to have a positive result on board effectiveness?’ And also, perception matters here—you govern in public, and having the support of the community is critically important. … I think we have to deal with both issues.”

Those issues have many parts. I’m planning to flesh out some of them in future posts.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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