Five Trustees, Rep. Conklin Host Open Forum
Community members and Penn State supporters packed the main meeting room in the State College Municipal building Wednesday night to participate in an engaging discussion about university governance organized by State Representative Scott Conklin. Penn State Trustees Keith Eckel, Paul Silvis, Abe Harpster, Ted Brown, and Anthony Lubrano all participated in the dialogue centered around Conklin’s Board of Trustees reform bills. Jack Wagner, the former PA Auditor General who authored a 124-page report outlining recommendations for improving the Board of Trustees, was also in attendance.
It was a rare opportunity for students and alumni to ask trustees candid questions in a public setting. The public comment section at the bi-monthly board meetings allow for speaking privileges but the trustees aren’t able to respond due to time constraints and procedural standards.
“The university trustees are always anxious to get feedback and hear input,” board vice president Paul Silvis said. “I’m here to listen and take your suggestions back to the board and sit here with an open mind.”
The forum’s intent, perhaps most of all, was to attract publicity for Rep. Scott Conklin’s four Penn State reform bills proposed last December to the State House that are still sitting in committee. The bills include provisions to decrease the board size to 18 voting trustees, require Penn State to comply with the full PA Right to Know law, set term limits, and ramp up the conflict of interest policy, among other governance reform measures.
“We’ve never had the opportunity to have so many individuals come out to an open dialogue,” Conklin said.
“I would be delighted if Harrisburg were to help us with a little more money. We had to pass a tuition increase last Friday that was higher than the rate of inflation,” Brown said. “All the State schools in Pennsylvania get more money per student than Penn State – the best university in the state gets the least amount of money from the state.”
Conklin, a Democrat, took that opportunity to take his colleagues to task for the waning state appropriation levels for higher education.
“The legislature and the governor should be embarrassed,” Conklin said on the state appropriations.
Over a dozen Penn State supporters spoke during the two-hour meeting, perhaps none more loquacious than Ben Novak. A former trustee himself, Novak believes the main problem does not lie within the Board of Trustees structure, but the university power complex as a whole.
“Every recommendation proposed here is to make the governing board GOVERN more — in other words, to take power from the faculty senate, student government, and new president,” Novak said. “We have to figure out how to be more decentralized…and restore that old time creativity and academic excellence. I’m not sure making [the board] more efficient and effective is the answer.”
Topics ranged from simple board structural changes, to conflict of interest concerns, to personnel issues. Although he never mentioned him by name, Ted Sebastianelli, a former trustee candidate, questioned why David Joyner was given the position without any national search.
“How is it that a trustee was able to conveniently resign to accept a $390,000 job as athletic director?” asked Sebastianelli. “Especially considering he’s severely under qualified.”
It was a rare instance during the discussion that Masser refused to answer a question. “It’s inappropriate for me to address that,” he said. Lubrano agreed, saying that “It is not the time to discuss things like that.”
It wasn’t the only time Lubrano urged a speaker to stay on track. P.J. Manella, a World Campus student, ended his remarks with the all too familiar question: “Can someone please explain the termination of coach Joe Paterno?”
“Certainly I understand your concern…it’s a good question,” Lubrano said. “This is not the time or place for that discussion…We’re here to discuss governance reform.”
Spencer Malloy was one of several students to speak during the forum. Malloy, the former UPUA Chairman, advocated for more transparency during the government appointed trustee process by forming an independent advisory board to help the governor select “qualified and passionate” trustees. Malloy said that this advisory board would help “avoid political favors.”
“There is a lack of communications between students and the Board of Trustees at this university,” Malloy said. “We can take some common sense steps to combat that.”
While most speakers were bullish toward potential reform, Jackie Shive, donning a “God Bless You Joe Paterno” shirt, was not as optimistic.
“With the fall of everything we knew and loved in this valley, the culture was gone. And the culture is still gone,” Shive said. “The Valley isn’t too happy anymore. We want our hearts back…We want something that recognizes how we live, how we feel.”
After two hours of dialogue, the trustees agreed that future forums would be beneficial and that they hoped to schedule more down the road. Anthony Lubrano concluded the evening with a quote from Joe Paterno.
“I have no doubt that with this chair that we will be making an effort to make this a better board and a model of governance for the rest of the country,” Lubrano said. “I hope we will leave Penn State in a better place than it was when we got here.”
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