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about 2 years ago
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The Trustee Model of Representation Misunderstood

Old Main on the Fourth of July

According to the University’s charter [PDF], Penn State “shall be under the management and government of the Board of Trustees.” The Board oversees the entire welfare of the university, and has ultimate control over its employees, programs, and education.

Most students, such as myself, became aware of the Trustees importance nine months ago, when the Grand Jury report of Jerry Sandusky was released. The Board, including Graham Spanier, met several times early in the week to discuss the futures of Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, the role of Joe Paterno, and Spanier’s comments defending the two indicted administrators.

On that fateful Wednesday night students, alumni, and other members of the Penn State family were stunned when the Board of Trustees announced that they fired our school’s godfather. How could a body do such a thing, fire the man who made the University what it is? They acted hastily, people said. They didn’t listen to their constituents! They caved to the bloodlust of the media!

In response to the severance of Joe Paterno, as well as bungling a response to the Grand Jury report, alumni saw the most recent Board of Trustees election as a way to change the decision-making process on the board. Various organizations, such as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship and Penn Staters Reforming the Board of Trustees, nominated individuals to serve as their candidates.

In total, eighty-six candidates appeared on the ballot, by far a record for the university. Many of the candidates made the Joe Paterno’s termination their primary decision for running. Sadly, a few made this their sole campaign platform. Anthony Lubrano, whom the alumni did elect, released a video as part of his campaign, saying, “Don’t worry Coach. We’ll take it from here.”

All this happened because a group of men and women failed to listen to the vocal majority of the Penn State community.

But this is how a trustee needs to perform.

British philosopher and Parliamentarian Edmund Burke laid out the trustee model of representation. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” If a government of trustees determines that a solution that goes against the majority opinion, but will lead to the most long-term benefits, then it is necessary for the body to pursue the unpopular outcome.

The opposite of this system is the delegate model of representation. The elected are bound to obey the whims of their population. Delegates who go against the grain shall be punished at the subsequent election. And this is where we find our Congress. Five-hundred thirty-five men and women each fighting for the individual benefits of their districts, which will lead to the districts’ short-term successes. But where does this leave the welfare of the nation? In poor conditions that trail most other industrialized economies.

What does the Penn State community want, and what does it need? Alumni and students would like to elect a Board of Delegates who would represent their interests. Failure to carry out the electorate’s desired policies would result in a termination from the board. However, the Board is privy to information that the community does not know, and/or could not understand. They have developed relationships with outside partners. They are mandated to keep the best interests of the university, not of the school’s affiliates. In doing the latter, a trustee would betray the long-term goals of Penn State University.

The Board of Trustees are mandated to manage the welfare of the university. If their governance goes against the whims of the alumni and student body, so be it. It is not the Board’s duty to cater itself to the masses. This is something we — and I include myself —  ought to remember as the Trustees continue to make difficult decisions for the foreseeable future.

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