Trustees | Trusteeship

Penn State is not unique with voting president on board of trustees

HARRISBURG PATRIOT-NEWS   |  August 11, 2012 by Jan Murphy

Graham Spanier repeatedly touted his former position as Penn State president as the best job in American higher education.


Perhaps it was because he had a board of trustees that appeared to do everything he wanted.

Spanier wanted Penn State to have a law school. He got one. A former trustee recalled Spanier telling, not asking, the board in 1997 that Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center was merging with Geisinger Health System. The board went along with it.

Then when that health care marriage went south two years later, Spanier told the board it was time for a divorce. They accepted that decision as well.

The trustees, who serve for no pay but have said they get perks such as football tickets and tailgate parties, were sharply criticized for that “tone at the top” in the report issued last month by former FBI chief Louis Freeh on the university’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual assault scandal.

That tone allowed Spanier to withhold information from the board about those molestation allegations that took place on university property, and the trustees, for the most part, chose to accept Spanier at his word when he downplayed the grand jury investigation into the matter, according to the report.

Sadly, higher education experts said that kind of rubber-stamping university board is not unique to Penn State. But Penn State’s story should serve as a wake-up call for other organizations to reassess the balance of power between their boards and president, they said.

Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has seen evidence of the out-of-whack governance issue from many corners.

It’s playing out right now at Syracuse University, where the board is only now investigating a child molestation complaint against former assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine that first surfaced in 2005. In an email Chancellor Nancy Cantor sent to the Syracuse community in November, she said the university performed its own investigation into child molestation allegations against Fine in 2005 but found no evidence of such behavior. On the heels of the email, however, Syracuse police spokesman Sgt. Tom Connellan told The Associated Press that the university did not contact police in 2005 regarding the allegation.

Days after she sent the email, Cantor fired Fine, who has denied the accusations.

Poliakoff, a former Pennsylvania deputy secretary of higher education, said he also heard another example last month from Oregon State University President Ed Ray, who chairs the NCAA’s executive committee.

During the news conference following the announcement of Penn State’s NCAA sanctions for what the Freeh report detailed as a university cover-up to protect the football program’s reputation, Ray responded to a question about whether the harsh sanctions were intended to make a statement that the NCAA is in charge of college athletics.

Ray said, “The message is the presidents and the chancellors are in charge.”

“No!” Poliakoff said, reacting to that statement. “The boards are in charge….Please read the rule book.”

President-run organizations like the NCAA “that encourage [presidents] to act that way are really doing a terrible disservice, and that’s one of the lessons that Penn State learned,” he said.

Ray, reached on Friday, said Poliakoff misinterpreted his comments.

“What I said at the press conference was that the presidents and chancellors are in charge of the NCAA and…we need to exercise our authority within the NCAA,” Ray said. “I had zero to say about board of trustees or governance. That was not the topic of conversation.”

But when it comes to university governance, he said he knows who his boss is. “My system board is my boss. I get that,” Ray said.

Ada Meloy, general counsel to the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education with expertise in university governance, said it’s important for board members to be informed of anything significant that is related to the life of an institution.

“What you saw in the Penn State situation is most unfortunate in that that wasn’t happening apparently from what I read,” Meloy said.

David La Torre, a Penn State spokesman, declined comment for this story.

Poliakoff said the board hires a president to handle the managerial aspects and oversee academic aspects of a school, but it bears the ultimate responsibility for decisions that are made. So it behooves the board to remain actively engaged and well-informed, he said.

He said college trustees have told him their presidents discourage them from finding out what’s happening on campus, from making visits, from talking to other administrative staff. That’s absolutely wrong, he said.

“I had one trustee tell me the president told the board, ‘I need to re-educate you.’ Since when does the person that’s hired by the board re-educate the boss? That’s really what the relationship often degenerates to, and there are consequences when that happens,” he said.

Some observers said Penn State’s harsh lessons on governance is motivating or should motivate other boards to do a gut-check on who’s really in charge at their organization.

“I think any institution would benefit from reviewing the Freeh report and thinking about what could happen and how one would avoid the kind of disaster that fell upon Penn State,” said Meloy from the American Council on Education. “Things happened there that shouldn’t have happened and we all should and could learn from that.”

State Auditor General Jack Wagner recently criticized another aspect of Penn State’s governance. He took issue with the university president being a voting member of its board, as well as its secretary.

“The president cannot be an employee and equal to the board, but that’s been the structure of Penn State for far too long,” Wagner said.

He is urging the General Assembly to change the law to remove the president as a board member. Calls to the other state-related schools—Pitt, Temple and Lincoln—revealed their president or chancellor gets a vote in board decisions as well.

Nationally, however, Wagner said his analysis found only 6 percent of colleges and universities allow their president to be a voting board member.

While he sees that as a conflict, a source close to Penn State’s board said the influence of the president’s vote may be over-rated. It’s more likely the president’s stature as the head of the university in recommending the board take a certain action has more sway than which way the president votes, the source said.

If that’s the case, then take away the president’s vote, Poliakoff said.

“What that kind of configuration will cause is a maverick CEO and a bunch of decorative trustees, and that’s not healthy,” he said.

Poliakoff said he is noticing signs that university boards are exercising their clout and getting more engaged in university affairs.

He’s seen trustees at some schools vote “no” on tuition increases, saying parents and students can’t afford to pay more. Even more striking, members of the University of California Board of Regents a few months ago balked at UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s plan to build a $162 million hotel and conference center on campus.

They said it was sprung on them at the last minute and they didn’t have enough information to determine its appropriateness. Last month, after getting more information, the board approved the project.

“I really like the idea of a board saying I don’t care if there are reporters in the room or if this is embarrassing. My duty is to determine what’s in the best interest of the university and the taxpayers of the state, and I vote no,” Poliakoff said. “That’s the kind of active trustee we need to encourage.”

Happening Sunday

Penn State’s board of trustees plan to meet via telephone conference at 5 p.m. to discuss and vote on a motion approving a consent decree accepting the sanctions imposed by the NCAA.

The NCAA on July 23 barred the school from postseason play for four years; fined it $60 million; and invalidated 112 of the football team’s wins for the way school officials handled abuse complaints against former university assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in June of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.


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