Now that an unwelcome spotlight has fallen on Penn State, Pennsylvanians have a rare opportunity to take a closer look at the higher education system they’ve been financing for years.
And it’s time to demand reform. During the Enron scandal, the country learned of high-level executives flouting the law, complicit auditors, a lack of transparency and a corporate culture of corruption and complacency. It became painfully clear that rubber stamp executive boards and opaque practices were the breeding ground for trouble.
Sound familiar? Now that the public can peer through the cracks in State College’s ivory tower, we see a university that is more interested in protecting itself than in preparing students or serving the public. We see leadership more adept at ignoring problems or sweeping them under the rug than handling them like adults—before the headlines force unplanned and immediate action.
Unfortunately, Penn State’s board of trustees is in no position to deal with the problem because it is the problem. A relic of the Civil War era, the Penn State board is an unwieldy collection of 32 people, coming from a range of constituencies. Six are appointed by the governor; six more are elected by the board to represent business and industry; five are ex-officio members (including the governor); nine are elected by the alumni, many of whom are big-dollar donors; and six more are tossed in courtesy of agricultural societies.
Not exactly a recipe for independence and accountability. Given the size and absurd composition, trustees are more likely to go along to get along rather than ask the tough questions. It should come as no surprise that many trustees reported never hearing about the scandal until reading it in the papers.
Some even complained in the days following the indictment that only a few trustees were allowed in on the details. This is the governing body that ensured the football coach made more than the president, that focused on football tickets and fancy student centers.
This is the group that decided to build more buildings rather than ask faculty to reschedule so they could use the buildings they had. This is the board that decided it was better to keep a long-time insider than go through the hard work and healthy process of a national presidential search.
Something is rotten at Penn State, and it starts with the board of trustees. But it must not end with the trustees. The Penn State board is a legislative creation, and it is the Legislature that must bring about urgent reform.
As parents and the public rightly demand greater accountability, a new governance model is in order. The motley collection of 32 trustees today is accountable to no one and must be scaled back to a more manageable number, where all trustees feel mutual responsibility for the actions of the board.
And who should appoint them? The governor. Experience in other states shows that engaged governors are key to higher ed reform. They can, through the bully pulpit, set an agenda for change and ensure that appointees are informed caretakers of the public’s trust and wallet. It’s time Pennsylvanians asked themselves if Penn State’s trustees are fulfilling their duty to the students, families and taxpayers.
Are the trustees establishing appropriate priorities—fiscal and academic? Can they show their primary focus on the institution’s educational purpose? The clear answer is no. At the end of the day, we must hold boards accountable. They are responsible for actions of university leaders and they owe taxpayers and students accountability and transparency for the use of taxpayer dollars.
Faculty regularly have a commitment to their disciplines. Administrators tend to be dedicated to the growth of their institutions. It is the governing board that must be accountable to the citizens of the state by addressing these competing priorities. Only trustees are in a position to ensure that the distinctive educational purpose of the American university remains at the forefront of every other activity.
Now that we’ve heard the foundations shake and the perceptions shatter in Happy Valley, it’s time for Pennsylvania to lead the way. With a new structure and a real accountability, Penn State can be a model of higher education stewardship. The business community learned from Enron; the Keystone State must do the same when it comes to Penn State.
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence, academic freedom and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.