There are 32 candidates running for the Board of Trustees this year, but among the most visible on campus (along with Gavin Keirans) has been the Upward State-endorsed slate of Dan Cocco, Julie Harris McHugh, and Matt Schuyler. The former two candidates greeted students on campus Monday afternoon and met with a small group in a HUB conference room, while the latter phoned in on a conference call.
Upward State is a new group hoping to reform Penn State and the Board of Trustees with a forward-thinking, students-first message to contrast the vengeful platform of PS4RS centered around demanding penance and mitigating past leadership failures.
The prevailing message of the afternoon was a commitment to improving the Board of Trustees’ communication strategy, particularly in how information is gathered and disseminated to students. All three candidates promised, if elected, to operate effectively as messengers between university leadership and the student body.
“A trustee needs to be a conduit for a two-way conversation between the leadership of the university and the students that they serve,” said McHugh, a former Lion Ambassador. “I want to make sure I’m always a catalyst to that two-way conversation….We need trustees who can communicate their constituents’ views to the Board – what matters to parents, students, and faculty – to make sure all voices are being heard.”
“In the absence of transparency – that’s when you start to hear conspiracy theories. With a lack of information, people make stuff up. We need catalysts for this two way dialogue.”
Part of that two-way conversation was listening to the concerns of the students in the room. Former Homecoming Director Bobby Walter brought up the alumni-manufactured controversy surrounding the selection of John Amaechi as Grand Marshal last fall. The former basketball star made a comment two years prior about the shame he felt during the most hectic days of the Sandusky scandal, which drew the ire from some of the most vocal alumni in PS4RS-type communication streams.
“We were drowning in backlash from just emails and phone calls and were looking for some outside help from the university,” Walter said. “We looked everywhere for help – even though we asked people from Old Main or the Alumni Association, no one was willing to help us out. It’s really overwhelming at times for students to tell them that they don’t know what they’re doing. You guys being here today really helps support that theory. Being here for students is really, really important.”
Another student voiced concerns that some of the most vocal alumni are drowning out all the good things Penn State continues to do by refusing to move forward from past grievances. McHugh seemed to sympathize with the concern but said it was up to thoughtful-thinking Penn Staters to help guide the story.
“[The Sandusky affair] was a heartbreaking moment as an alum, but you guys are rewriting the narrative,” McHugh said. “You might not feel like you are, but you are. It’s going to be our actions that define us and reshape our brand. It’s not going to be looking back and being divisive about events that happened three years ago.”
All three candidates also agreed that Board reform is necessary — an initiative that will be of crucial importance for new trustees as a not yet fleshed out proposal moves through committee for approval in September. McHugh said it would “be a healthy thing to reduce the size of the board,” and Schuyler agreed.
“The world has changed a lot since the governance model of the university was constructed,” Schuyler said. “Having an active dialogue with all our constituencies about this issue will be important.”
Undergraduate students are not able to vote in the upcoming trustee election, and one student asked how they — without the power of the ballot box — could help the cause. McHugh said that even if people didn’t agree with everything on the platform, it is imperative to stay informed with the process.
“Communicate to the student body and communicate with recent friends who graduated,” she advised. “Students need to know how important this election is.”