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Alumni Association Excludes Candidates From Elections, Raising Concerns over Bylaws

by Michael Martin Garrett

The Penn State Alumni Association may have violated its bylaws by barring some candidates from running in an upcoming election, sources both inside and outside the organization say.

Each year, the Association holds an election to choose 10 new members for the association’s alumni council, which currently has 86 members. For the first time in recent memory, 12 nominated alumni were omitted from the official list of candidates for the association’s governing body.

Of the 12 alumni barred from the May elections, Executive Director Roger Williams says five were excluded for very specific reasons: former assistant football coach Jay Paterno was disallowed because of his ongoing lawsuits against Penn State, while four alumni-elected members of the Penn State Board of Trustees were excluded precisely because they are university trustees.

The remaining seven alumni who were not permitted to run in the election were omitted due to what the nominating committee determined was a lack of relevant leadership experience, a lack of history of service with the alumni association and similar factors, Williams says. It appears that at least some of the people who were excluded have expressed unhappiness with the Penn State Board of Trustees.

At least one current member of the alumni council thinks the decision to bar those alumni from running constitutes a violation of the alumni association’s bylaws.

“Our bylaws say that any alumni members of the association may run for council, and the nominating committee will consider things like diversity and geographic location,” says alumni council member Deborah Beidel. “Nowhere in the bylaws does it say that you have to have service with the association or have been in some kind of leadership position.”

Beidel, who is also a member of the vocal alumni-interest group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, explains that her opinions on this issue are primarily shaped by involvement in the alumni association.

Beidel says one of the alumni who was not permitted to run in the association’s election — Elizabeth Morgan — is also a member of PS4RS, while several others announced their intent to run through a Facebook group called “WE Intend to Vote Out the Penn State Board of Trustees.” Beidel says the Facebook group is “unofficially” associated with PS4RS, though some alumni affiliated with the group did make it onto the alumni council ballot.

Penn State Trustee Alice Pope is one of the four trustees who attempted to enter the race; the others are Bill Oldsey, Anthony Lubrano and Ted Brown. Pope says she was surprised and disappointed to learn of their omission from the elections.  What’s more surprising, she says, is the reasoning behind the decision.

An official statement put out by the Alumni Association explains that it would be a conflict of interest for a university trustee to serve on the alumni council, because the association is an independent entity from the university. Pope says this argument doesn’t make sense because the immediate past president of the alumni association (who also heads the committee that determines who is eligible to run in alumni council elections) will soon be a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees.

“You can’t have it both ways,” says university trustee Ted Brown, another alumni-elect who was rejected from the list of candidates. “You can’t say that we shouldn’t sit on alumni council because of a conflict of interest, when they have a member that will be joining the board. The conflict of interest argument either applies to both groups or neither.”

Williams explains that while he and other association staffers are university employees, the alumni council is a completely volunteer organization. As such, he believes it’s important to maintain the council’s autonomy and independence from the influence of Penn State administrators and trustees that could exert more influence than other council members.

Williams says that one of the foundational purposes of the alumni association is to support the educational and research goals of the university – so it make sense for the association to be represented on the board of trustees. However, he says it doesn’t work both ways because the university has no express goal to support the efforts of the Alumni Association.

“It’s hard not to wonder if they didn’t make up these rules after the fact, because they’re not mentioned in the bylaws,” Pope says. “We can make the observation that many of the alumni barred from the election are people that have been publicly critical of some aspects of the board of trustees and the alumni association’s trustee seat. That gives an appearance of bias, and that’s a problem.”

Beidel says she raised concerns that the association has violated its own bylaws to other council members with little success. She plans to continue to voice her concerns in the hope that the Alumni Association will take action to address this issue.

“My position is that if the alumni association needs to have new criteria for alumni council eligibility, that’s fine,” Beidel says. “My concern is that those criteria need to be announced in advance and approved by council. You can’t just suddenly say after the nominations, ‘we have new criteria’ and then apply them retroactively. That’s not fair.”

Photo: Greg Grieco

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