WASHINGTON, DC— The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) today expressed concern about Pennsylvania State University’s Board of Trustees’ vote to discourage its members from expressing dissenting opinions regarding board decisions.
According to an article in the Centre Daily Times, the PSU Board of Trustees’ “committee on governance and long-range planning voted on an ‘expectation’ of its members. Namely, that once a decision is made, the trustees, regardless of whether they voted for or against it, would all stand behind the group.”
While Penn State’s president has reiterated that the vote only sets an expectation and does not suggest any punishment for trustees who speak out, ACTA leadership said that such an expectation is inappropriate and may discourage trustees from voicing their opinions.
In its 2016 guide The Basics of Responsible Trusteeship, ACTA reminds trustees that the president and board chair are the primary spokespeople for the university and urges them to remember their obligations to discretion and confidentiality. Nonetheless, demanding the appearance of unanimity undermines the ability of trustees, especially those at public institutions, to perform their oversight function.
“Public universities should welcome inquiry and debate on governance matters. No one will dispute that it is a Board’s responsibility to act effectively on the university’s behalf, and that all board members have a sacred obligation to honor confidentiality agreements. But as public fiduciaries, trustees are obligated to act in the public interest, and, when appropriate, to challenge conventional wisdom, to ask difficult questions, and to express dissenting opinions,” said Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “Dissenting voices need to be heard and considered. University leaders should renew their commitment to open dialogue and free expression as the bedrock of effective board governance.”