The Penn State trustees on Thursday pledged a full review of Auditor General Jack Wagner’s recommendations for changes in the board’s structure and operations.
But members’ immediate reaction to the changes—mostly designed to make the board more independent of the Penn State president and more transparent to students, staff and alumni—was muted.
That was in part because Wagner’s report was unveiled on Wednesday, a day when many of the trustees were en route to State College for Thursday’s regular board meeting.
But it also had a lot to do with the fact that Wagner’s is just one of a growing list of prescriptions to help the trustees take a stronger hand in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz noted that the board has already received recommendations from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni; the trustee-commissioned Freeh Report calls for changes in university governance; and another set of proposals is being developed by the faculty senate.
That’s not including a steady stream legislative proposals expected after state lawmakers start their new term this winter.
Peetz said her plan would be for the board, once all those documents have been presented and digested, to meet in a special session to begin determining what changes make the most sense for Penn State. Any changes, she noted, likely would then come in several steps through 2013, as the board also deals with a presidential search and continued fallout from the Sandusky scandal.
Sandusky, the longtime defensive coordinator to head football coach Joe Paterno, was convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys between 1994 and 2008. Sandusky is serving a minimum 30-year state prison sentence.
Wagner, in his special report, called for the 32-member board to downsize to no more than 21 voting members, arguing that with a larger board there is a tendency for power to become concentrated in the hands of leaders.
He also advocated for an end to the Penn State president’s and the governor’s automatic seats on the board, and the legislature should bring Penn State fully under the umbrella of the state’s Open Records law.
Some trustees voiced frustration at the constant stream of proposals from outside observers.
Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, complained that Penn State is different from other major public universities, and “a lot of things might just not it or us that do fit at a lot of other places.”
He noted that while Penn State has a larger board than most colleges and universities, for example, it has been praised for its guaranteed representation of a various constituencies like alumni, the agricultural sector, and business and industry.
But most, like Peetz, said it is important for the board to be open to all suggestions.
Over the past year, the board has been roundly criticized for becoming a rubber stamp for former President Graham Spanier and for being tone deaf to the feelings to large groups of alumni when it did take charge in the wake of Sandusky’s arrest.
“We’re embarking on a period that’s really going to define Penn State’s future because of all that’s happened,” said trustee Joel Myers, who argued that the board needs to consider everything, even if it only accepts a handful of the changes in the end.
Board Vice Chairman Keith Masser said he agreed that the board should come up with a clear consensus of the changes that it believes would be most helpful. In that way, he said, the board will be best-positioned to work with the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, who will have a major say over any changes.
In his report, Wagner argued that the university’s power center, a it evolved under former president Graham Spanier, had shifted too close to the president’s office.
As a result, he said, too many trustees weren’t informed about the gravity of the serial pedophile allegations against Sandusky, the longtime defensive coordinator to legendary head football coach Joe Paterno, until after the charges were filed last November.
In the full board meeting today, Penn State trustees are expected to take formal action to launch their search for the university’s 18th president.
They are also expected to adopt a new code of conduct for athletes and coaches that is one of many requirements flowing out of penalties handed down by the National Collegiate Athletic Association over the summer.