Dan Cocco doesn’t look like your typical Penn State Board of Trustees member. He’s less than half the average age, and he’s been out of school for less time than he was in it (Cocco earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in Fundraising Management in 2011). But it’s precisely that unique youth experience that Cocco hopes to leverage into a spot as an alumni trustee during the next election cycle. The 2008 Penn State graduate announced his candidacy earlier this month, joining Bob Jubelrier as (to my knowledge) the second person to publicly announce their candidacy.
“As a recent graduate, I’m confident my perspective will benefit the board,” Cocco said. “I want to speak for a group of alumni that think they need a stronger voice.”
Of course, Cocco’s perspective isn’t exclusively defined by his youth. He is the 2008 THON Overall Chair — one of the most coveted and well-respected student leadership positions at Penn State. Under Cocco’s leadership, THON raised $6,615,318.04 for the Four Diamonds Fund in its second year at the Bryce Jordan Center. Since his THON days, Cocco has lived in New York City and currently works as a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP helping nonprofits and businesses around the world.
Cocco says he makes it back to campus “fairly often” and isn’t naive to the electoral science that has dominated the most recent two Board of Trustees alumni elections. Penn Staters for Responsibly Stewardship (PS4RS), the largest group dedicated to reforming Penn State’s leadership structure, formed out of a frustration for how the Board handled the Sandusky situation in 2011, especially Joe Paterno’s firing. The group has endorsed six candidates during the last two elections, and so far, they’re undefeated — by huge margins, in fact. Cocco hopes to change that trend this year.
“I’m not a member of PS4RS. I have no plans to seek their endorsement,” Cocco said. “If they ask me about it, I’d love to hear other perspectives. I started this campaign running for the endorsement of the larger Penn State community. I think my message will appeal to not only members of PS4RS but of the whole community. The feedback I’ve received has been very strong.”
“Once you are elected, you need to serve all alumni, students, and faculty – that’s a matter of fact.”
Of course, the issues PS4RS is focused on are still relevant to a candidate’s resume to a certain degree. I asked Cocco, broadly, about how well he thought the board handled the Sandusky fallout, and what he would have done differently.
“What I’m going to talk about this year is about how to move the university into the future,” Cocco said, unwilling to fling mud. “They had to make very unpopular decisions with very little information in front of them. I wasn’t in the room. I’m not going to second guess them. I don’t think anyone who was in the room can say what they would do in an absolute manner.”
But, despite Cocco’s unwillingness to condemn university leadership for firing Joe Paterno two years ago, he still holds a deep respect for the former coach.
“People always ask can we move forward and at the same time honor Joe Paterno, and I say yes. I feel that Joe’s legacy of building a library for students to learn, stressing success in the classroom and on the field, is very important,” Cocco said. “I worked with Sue at THON events. I met Joe at charity events as well. I think that’s how we best honor Joe Paterno – by talking about students and academics and service to community. He’s been a personal role model to me and I’m going to be talking about that through the campaign. If I become a trustee, I’m going to call upon that influence to help run the university.”
The theme of Cocco’s platform is forward thinking governance, although he’s leaving it fairly non-specific for now. He started his Penn State years at the Hazleton campus, so he told me he wants to promote the campuses and World Campus opportunities. He also said he “feels strongly” two seats on the board should be dedicated to students — there is only one now in an unofficial capacity. Cocco also wants to involve the various alumni chapters, and plans to visit as many as he can during the election season. He says the number one issue right now is finding a permanent president — although that decision will likely be made concurrently with the beginning of his potential term.
“We need to honor our past and provide leadership for the future,” Cocco said. “I’m going to visit lot of cities and do a lot of listening. I’m happy to have such a broad network.”
The election is currently in its nomination stage — Cocco and other potential candidates won’t officially appear on the ballot until they receive 50 or more nominations — which will last until February 25. Voting begins on April 10 (alumni need to request a ballot), and the three winners will be announced at the May 9 meeting. Despite the fact that dozens of candidates are likely to throw their name into the hat (86 ran in 2012, 39 in 2013), Cocco is confident at this early stage of the campaign.
“This year,” Cocco said confidently, “This year, I know I’m ready.”