STATE COLLEGE – A state lawmaker seeking greater transparency at Penn State has unveiled legislation aimed at reforming the university’s Board of Trustees, including reducing the size of the board and fully extending the state’s Right-to-Know law to the school.
Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, said Tuesday his proposed reforms are based on the extensive recommendations issued last month by state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who examined Penn State’s governing structure in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
“I believe the time is right now. I don’t think we can allow this to wait and fester for a couple years,” Conklin said when asked if there was political will in Harrisburg to move forward with reforms. He said he has lined up 18 co-sponsors, both Democrats and Republicans.
Conklin represents an area home to Penn State’s main University Park campus in State College. He was joined at a news conference Tuesday by Anthony Lubrano, a trustee who joined the board this summer after being supported, in part, by alumni seeking trustees reform.
Lubrano endorsed the bill, but on his own behalf – not as an official representative of the board.
The school is trying to repair its reputation from the sweeping scandal, one of the worst in higher education. Costs associated with the scandal – including legal fees, crisis communications and investigations – totaled about $23.5 million as of Sept. 30, the university said this week. That figure would not include the first of five $12 million annual installments, due Dec. 20, to pay a $60 million fine handed down by the NCAA as part of sanctions from college sports’ governing body.
As in Wagner’s report, Conklin proposed reducing the size of the board by 10 to 22 members, including a nonvoting governor. The school president would be prohibited from serving as a voting member or officer on the board, or on any committees.
Conklin called for having Penn State and Pennsylvania’s three other “state-related” institutions – Lincoln, Pitt and Temple – covered under Right-to-Know laws, as well as having trustees comply with the state’s Ethics Act, including financial disclosure provisions.
“This piece of legislation doesn’t change Penn State in any way,” Conklin said. “All that it does is that it brings Penn State in line with ethics laws, right-to-know laws, and it brings it in line with how other universities are running their campuses.”
The university “welcomed the input from Rep. Conklin,” school spokesman Dave La Torre said in a statement. He cited the internal reforms currently being implemented upon recommendation by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who led Penn State’s investigation into the scandal.
About half of the 119 recommendations have taken effect, including reforms to governance. Besides the recommendations from Freeh and Wagner, the school also is awaiting a similar report from the Faculty Senate.
Trustees said at a meeting last month that more deliberation was needed in weighing the various proposals and spoke about bringing in an outside consultant to help sift through suggestions. The changes will be a main topic of a January retreat by the board.
“We will closely review the Senate’s report, as well as those provided by Auditor General Wagner, Rep. Conklin and others in the coming months,” La Torre said in an email.
Lubrano said he hoped Conklin’s bill would help spur quicker action by the board itself.
“I’m of the opinion that there’s no reason for us to wait. There’s no reason for us to engage yet another consultant,” Lubrano said. “Frankly, we already know what needs to be done. This is a smart group of people. ... We should just go ahead and get this done.”
Some alumni remain roiled by the board’s actions – and how it came to those decisions – since the early days of the scandal after Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011. Former coach Joe Paterno was fired days later, and school president Graham Spanier was ousted.
The alumni watchdog group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship said Tuesday in a statement it favored any changes that “will result in the removal of the members who were present as of November 2011. ... They have demonstrated irresponsible leadership and absolutely no defense of the university for more than a year.”
Anger and frustration among some alumni boiled over again after the board leadership accepted responsibility for Freeh’s report in July, which said Paterno, Spanier and two other school officials acted to conceal allegations to avoid bad publicity for the school.
Paterno died in January. His family and the three officials have vehemently denied Freeh’s findings.