When Penn State University needed to fill top positions in 2010 and 2011, administrators didn‘t look far.
The university hired members of its board of trustees for jobs that paid six figures without opening the positions to other applicants.
The moves are drawing criticism as experts sift through fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that led to charges of an alleged cover-up against three top administrators. Some critics say the university makes decisions in secret.
In a recent report singling out Penn State‘s board as unique in size and composition among the nation‘s top 20 research universities, former Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner cited six instances in which board members became employees, or vice versa. The revolving door created “a cast of influential insiders” that stifled openness and accountability at the state‘s largest public university, he said.
Wagner said regardless of qualifications, trustees have inside information other job candidates lack.
“They certainly get preferential treatment, and it creates a serious appearance of impropriety,” he said.
Longtime Penn State trustee and Pittsburgh businessman James Broadhurst said he wouldn‘t rush into changes.
“I‘m sure there are opinions on both sides,” he said. “We certainly have a history of some really good people on the board who have come out of the university, and vice versa.”
Broadhurst said the committee on governance that he chairs would take up the issue as trustees on Thursday and Friday weigh proposals about the board‘s size, composition and operations.
Helen Page Woodyard of Hickory, N.C., a Penn State graduate who studied the issue for PSU-ReBOT, an alumni group that wants to restructure the board, was surprised to learn the university fills posts that way.
“I think it‘s a clear conflict and should not be allowed,” she said.
Anthony Lubrano, a business executive from Southeastern Pennsylvania who joined the board last summer, said trustees must close the revolving door.
“This is just foreign to me. I feel stronger about it than ever before. Qualifications aside, you are taking someone and throwing them into a position where people are going to have a perception about oversight that is not going to be overcome,” Lubrano said.
He said two hires trouble him: former trustee Cynthia Baldwin, a retired state Supreme Court justice, stepped from the board to the university general counsel‘s office in 2010, and David Joyner left the board in November 2011 to become acting athletic director.
Administrators asked Baldwin, a former board chair, to become the first in-house general counsel, a position she held for 21⁄2 years at a salary of $321,000 year. She declined comment.
Baldwin‘s lawyer, Charles DeMonaco, said she initially agreed to serve six months to establish the office and direct a search for a permanent replacement. “It was extremely valuable for her to have experience on the board and to work with the board of Penn State,” DeMonaco said.
Last summer, after a national search, the university hired a general counsel from Johns Hopkins University.
Joyner became acting athletic director, drawing a yearly salary of $396,000, when the Sandusky scandal exploded and authorities charged former athletic director Tim Curley with an alleged cover-up. Joyner, an orthopedic surgeon on the board for 11 years, did not respond to requests for comment.
University President Rodney Erickson hailed Joyner‘s appointment, noting that he “served the board with integrity and he is internationally known for his work with the U.S. Olympic Committee.”
Former employees have become trustees, Wagner said.
Steve Garban, a former Penn State vice president elected to the board in 1998, five years after he retired, chaired the board when the university hired Baldwin and Joyner.
Wagner said Garban‘s election was in line with bylaws suggesting a three-year waiting period between university employment and board service. There is no wait required to go from the board to university employment.
Garban, who resigned in July amid criticism of his leadership during the Sandusky scandal, was reluctant to discuss the so-called revolving door.
“The board is considering that now, and I‘m no longer on the board. I‘d rather not inject myself into it,” he said.
Unlike Penn State, the 14 state-owned universities in the State System of Higher Education have clear rules for filling high-profile positions. Although the state system oversight board can make interim appointments to fill vacancies and does not bar trustees from applying, it must advertise high-profile positions, spokesman Kenn Marshall said.
Experts in university governance said Penn State is an exception among public universities, where trustees and staff rarely change positions.
“There is a reason you want to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The revolving door leaves things too murky,” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington.
State Sen. Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican and Penn State alum, said lawmakers will debate the issue at hearings this spring.