Trustees | Trusteeship

Auditor calls for sweeping changes at Penn State

USA TODAY   |  November 14, 2012 by Mary Beth Marklein

Echoing criticisms that a “conspiracy of silence” at Penn State enabled a child sex-abuse scandal to go on for years, Pennsylvania’s auditor general Wednesday called on Gov. Tom Corbett and state lawmakers to demand sweeping changes at the state’s flagship university.

Calling the power structure at Penn State antiquated, insular and concentrated in the hands of too few, Auditor General Jack Wagner also criticized the board of trustees for failing to take steps necessary over the last year to “restore the university’s tattered reputation.”

A more effective system of governance might not have prevented the predatory behaviors that led to the conviction of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on multiple child-sex-abuse charges, but it might have uncovered the problems sooner, Wagner said. He began monitoring the university’s use of taxpayer funding since Sandusky was arrested last November.

Since then, Sandusky has been sent to jail, effectively for life, and former Penn State president Graham Spanier and two other former administrators were charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and endangering children in an alleged coverup of the scandal. In announcing the charges against Spanier this month, Attorney General Linda Kelly noted a “callous lack of concern” for the victims.

This summer, former FBI director Louis Freeh raised concerns about the “Penn State Culture.”

The university was sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and its handling of campus crime reporting is under investigation by the Education Department

Wednesday’s 124-page report, based on an investigation of Penn State’s governance system compared with those of flagship universities in other states, outlines more than two dozen recommendations, several of which would require action by state lawmakers. Chief among the recommendations: Scale back the “almost unlimited power” of the president, overhaul the trustee selection process, and embrace–rather than impede–open-records requests.

The report also criticized the university’s decision to award emeritus status to Sandusky when he retired in 1999, a perk that entitled him access to a number of campus privileges. Current President Rodney Erickson, who was provost at that time and replaced Spanier after he was fired last year, approved the emeritus status. Erickson plans to retire in June 2014.

Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a non-profit group that was mentioned several times in the report, lauded the findings: “This is a careful analysis that goes to the very root of the problem. Namely, that the Penn State board vested far too much power in the president and failed to exercise its fiduciary duties of oversight. This culture of board deference must change at Penn State, and other colleges and universities need carefully to review their governance structure to ensure that boards are empowered and proactive. Properly, the auditor’s report calls for appropriate, substantive reforms.”


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