Trustees | Trusteeship

Penn State’s “informal” discussion about possibly going private meets with mixed reactions

HARRISBURG PATRIOT-NEWS   |  March 6, 2012 by Sara Ganim and Jan Murphy

Gov. Tom Corbett has warned Penn State to open its records or risk losing taxpayer funding.

Several weeks after he issued that warning, two Penn State trustees met with Cornell University and discussed the possibility of making a transition to a private university.

Karen Peetz, the new chairwoman of Penn State’s board of trustees, talked about the meeting during a presentation at the faculty senate Tuesday.

Peetz mentioned the meeting just minutes after she proclaimed that the board was focused on transparency and change.

“The Cornell model is of great interest,” Peetz said. “But this can’t be rushed. I don’t think that’s going to be a quick decision.”

A Penn State spokeswoman said that no decisions have been made about a transformation to a private university.

The meeting between Peetz, Vice Chairman Keith Masser and a Cornell trustee was “informal” and set up by a mutual friend, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Tuesday night. Masser later met separately with another board member.

“It was only a discussion of ideas and nothing more,” Powers said. “Karen Peetz today at the senate meeting did not endorse Penn State adopting the Cornell model or any particular model. All she said was that the board is listening to various ideas and will continue to do so in the spirit of openness and communication, which has marked her leadership.”

Peetz took over two months after charges were filed against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. State prosecutors accuse him of child sex abuse against 10 boys spanning 15 years. Two top university officials were charged with perjury and failing to report an incident involving Penn State in 2002.

In November, the board fired then-President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno days after the charges were filed. But critics have questioned the board’s leadership and the university’s openness. Many have urged Penn State to waive its exemptions under the open-records law.

So, reaction to the conversations with Cornell—throughout the education and government communities—is mixed.

Some say it’s prudent. Others think it’s foolish, or an attempt to stay in the dark.

Secrecy or taxpayer money

The university has benefited from some exemptions to state Right to Know law.

The law presumes that virtually all records of an agency are public. State and local government agencies, the 14 state-owned universities—including Millersville and Shippensburg—and the state’s community colleges are fully subject to the law.

Penn State is granted some exceptions. The university must release some financial information and salaries of only its top 25 earners.

Spanier lobbied hard to keep Penn State from being fully subject to the open-records law.

In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, Spanier’s replacement, Rodney Erickson, seemed more open to change.

As governor, Corbett is a member of the Penn State board. At the last trustees’ meeting, Corbett said Penn State would have to choose: taxpayer dollars or secrecy.

Corbett cut 20 percent of the university’s state aid in his first year in office. And he is proposing a 30 percent cut in the 2012-13 budget.

“Penn State would rather go private than be transparent,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capitol, a government watchdog. “That’s the bottom line. You have a culture that operates in the dark and is allergic to sunlight.”

Epstein has long lobbied for open-records laws, and said his biggest opponent in higher education was Spanier.

Spanier’s philosophy was that if the university had to fully comply with the Right to Know law, Penn State would be less competitive for top academic talent.

But tuition has continued to rise, and Penn State has become one of America’s most expensive state universities.

“Let’s be honest, they’re already priced at a private rate,” Epstein said. “They are running away from their problems, and I just think it’s time the university ‘fesses up and embraces transparency’.”

Penn State undergraduates who are state residents pay $15,124 in tuition this year. Tuition has more than doubled in the past decade, a fact Corbett has noted repeatedly.

The last time Penn State didn’t raise tuition was the 1967-68 school year. Tuition then was $450.

Wary of going private

Cornell has always been a private university.

However, four of its colleges—the college of agriculture and life sciences, human ecology, industrial and labor relations, and veterinary medicine—have land-grant status with the state of New York. Those four colleges get state aid for teaching and research.

Penn State, a land-grant university like Cornell, started as an agricultural college, and holds that as a rich and vital part of its history.

No matter what Penn State does, the university should find a way to continue funding agricultural research and the county extension offices, said Carl Meiss, master of the Pennsylvania State Grange.

The state’s farmers depend on that work, Meiss said.

Currently, research and the extension offices receive a significant portion of their funding from the state.

Corbett’s funding cuts made Sen. Jake Corman believe it was prudent for Penn State to start having a discussion about privatization, even though he hopes it won’t actually happen.

“It’s something I would oppose, but certainly I understand why the board would consider at least reviewing the possibilities,” said Corman, a Centre County Republican whose district includes Penn State’s main campus.

Corman also said he has had conversations with Penn State officials about the Cornell model and is aware they are looking at taking a privatized course. However, he has not begun looking at legislation that would be required to allow the university to unravel itself from state support and its land-grant status.

Switching its mission from a public to a private one would definitely impact the cost of attending Penn State. Trustees would move away from setting tuition based on what students could afford and shift to how much they’re willing to pay, Corman said.

If a switch like that would be made, it would be a very uncommon move, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“Their hesitation about this conversation is exactly right,” Poliakoff said.

Rather than consider that path to becoming a private university, he said Penn State needs to restructure its board to make it accountable and agile. It must take an aggressive look at its existing structure and become more cost-efficient.

“There are things that just haven’t been explored the way they need to be explored,” said Poliakoff, a former state post-secondary education deputy secretary during Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration.

Instead, the university could look at forming academic consortia with other public and private universities to share faculty, optimize their use of facilities, and prioritize its academic offerings.

“This is the kind of smart administration that has to happen and has to happen aggressively,” he said.

Matt Brouillette, president of the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, applauded Penn State’s exploration of moving to a private university.

“We obviously know higher-education subsidies don’t lead to lower tuition, so eliminating those subsidies is not going to directly affect tuition costs,” Brouillette said.

“So what we ought to be funding is the student, not the institution if we are going to subsidize higher education,” he added. “So we think this is a good move for not only the higher-education marketplace but also the quality of education that’s delivered.”


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