As an alumnus, I was bemused by an email this morning from Penn State president Rod Erickson. Here’s what he said:
Dear Penn State Community:
Recently, a number of groups across the Commonwealth have called for changes in the University’s governance structure. For more than 157 years, shared governance among the Board of Trustees, the administration, and the faculty has allowed our University to thrive and become one of the top research universities in the world. As you know, this has been a year of tremendous change at Penn State. Its governing body, the thirty-two-member Board of Trustees, also is changing.
Driven by the desire to do what’s in the best interests of the University, the Trustees on May 3 adopted a number of changes to Penn State’s charter, bylaws, and governance structure. These changes will help ensure the highest standards of excellence and a process of openness that will provide a clearer path forward in fulfilling our important mission of teaching, research, and public service.
Notably, these are living documents that were crafted to include a process for change; indeed, the Board has revised those documents more than twenty times in the past twelve years.
Another significant document connected with change is “A Vision for Penn State: A Report of the Blue and White Vision Council,” which explores the challenges, opportunities, and strategies for the University in the years ahead. The Vision Council, made up of members of the Board of Trustees and the University community, is integral to the future of the University.
I’d like to share with you these significant changes that promise to play a critical role in our future as a University and in the future of generations to come. As always, I hope these communications from me provide you with timely and important information about Penn State. Thank you for being a part of our University.
It appears that what Erickson is attempting to do is portray the Board of Trustees as a dynamic, forward thinking governing body that is responsive to the needs of the community. The BoT’s recent changes that seemingly serve to concentrate power inspired Erickson to put out this piece of colorful prose, no doubt, and his opening sentence suggests that he knows that the changes will piss off “a number of groups across the Commonwealth.” This seems to be pointed at PS4RS, from this naive turkey’s point of view.
So, what are the BoT changes? Funny you should ask. For a quick synopsis, if you read Big Al’s comment on my previous post, you’ll get an inkling — expressed in Al’s own gloves off, balls-to-the-wall style. For more detail, a Penn State press release will clue you in to the whole pile of changes. However, if you’re too busy to click on any of those links, here is a list of changes:
- The governor and University president will now serve as non-voting ex-officio members. (They used to vote)
- The president is no longer automatically secretary of the board. That position will be elected.
- Three-year term limits for all trustees, not just elected ones. [The wording is confusing in the press release, but I think this means terms, not term limits. See the next sentence. —TNT] Term limits for trustees other than ex-officio trustees will be 12 consecutive years.
- The number of voting trustees is reduced to 30: nine elected by alumni, six appointed by the governor, six elected by agricultural societies across the state, six represent business and industry and are selected by the BoT, and three are ex-officio members (Secretary of Education, Secretary of Agriculture, and Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources).
- Provision for term limits now applies to the vice chair (but not the chair!).
- Former University employees need to wait five years before serving on the BoT, up from three.
- Former Commonwealth “row officers” must wait five years before becoming trustees. (A row officer is a county official. This is kind of unique to Pennsylvania.)
- There is now a section describing the process for removal of a trustee. (This is a major controversial point, which seemed to be aimed at suppressing dissent on the board. It is half of the “Lubrano Rule” — nicknamed for an outspoken trustee — with the other half being that directors will not make publicly negative statements about board decisions. This section gives that gag rule teeth. I wrote about this back in March. Following is an excerpt from that post.)
It is interesting that with the election forthcoming, the BoT is considering proposals to reduce the size of the board, to put gags on members, and be empowered to kick people off the board who speak out. Here is the exact wording of the proposal that would restrict the free speech of board members:
“It is expected that each Trustee will… Speak openly, freely and candidly within the Board and publicly support decisions reached by the Board; it being recognized and understood that once the Board of Trustees, as the governing body of the University, makes a decision, it can be counterproductive and potentially damaging to the University for individual Trustees to publicly criticize or attempt to subvert such decision…”
Hellllllllooooooooo! If Washington ran that way, it would be Pyongyang! Communist stifling of free speech! Toe the party line… or else! WTF? Is this America?
- Quorum requirement modified from 13 to a majority of the voting members. (That would be 16, at present.)
- The Executive Committee is now selected by chairs of six newly formed standing committees, the chair and vice chair of the board, the chair of the board of directors at the medical school, the immediate past chair of the BoT (oy, vay!), and three at-large members (yay!) nominated by the Governance and Long-Range Planning committee (boo!) and elected by the Board of Trustees. (This serves to guarantee that power will be concentrated in and held by what Big Al refers to as the ass clowns, and it incidentally empowers Karen Peetz to continue to be influential over the board by virtue of her past board chairmanship and her position as chair of the long-range planning committee. I’m just whining about the “laser focus on the future” babe here.)
- The board also strengthened its comprehensive conflict of interest policy. (I’ll have to read this one thoroughly to find the fly in the ointment.)
So, that’s what Erickson means when he says that the documents are “living documents” that have been modified twenty times in the past twelve years. I think that the lady doth protest too much! Surely, he (or more probably, the University Relations “ass clown” who wrote the letter) were being rather transparent in attempting to defuse what he anticipated to be a sea of protests, especially concerning Executive Committee and the “Lubrano gag rule” buried deeply and couched tersely in the fetid bowels of the synopsis.
As a further smokescreen, Erickson presents “A Vision for Penn State: A Report of the Blue and White Vision Council.” You may recall that Karen Peetz chairs the Blue and White Vision Council, where she maintains her signature laser focus on the future of the university. In her foreword, she quotes historian Norman Davies, to wit:
“Historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All changes take place under the surface and are rather invisible. But something is coming. What is impossible is to say when.”
The document is a glowing self-promotion, just about what you would expect from a 19-page document from this group. But sandwiched innocuously between the copious promotional boilerplate and the “implications for the next University president” lip service is a section on ethics. The following paragraphs on Page 17 caught my eye:
The Board of Trustees commissioned an independent review – known as the Freeh Report — which recommended that Penn State’s culture be re-examined in part to “establish values and ethics-based decision-making and adherence to the Penn State principles as the standard for all University faculty, staff and students.” Building a strong and healthy campus culture has been a point of Penn State pride over many years. For example, the Penn State Principles, aspirational statements for students, were issued more than 10 years ago, in July 2001. The Principles include four key statements:
“I will respect the dignity of all individuals within the Penn State community; I will practice academic integrity; I will demonstrate social and personal responsibility; and I will be responsible for my own academic progress and agree to comply with all University policies.”
Given the sole focus of these principles on student responsibilities, however, Penn State concluded that a new and broader set of Principles was needed. They will be grounded in Penn State’s core values and will be relevant for all students, faculty and staff. Several steps are now under way to develop the revised Principles. Prominent faculty ethicists have offered advice and expertise on substantive and process issues related to identifying new Principles. A Task Force of faculty, students and staff has been charged to lead the project and to establish a process and timeline for completion. Likewise, an audit of college, campus and administrative unit core values has been undertaken, and benchmarking of core values from other universities has also been completed. Finally, discussions have begun with the Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to independent research that advances high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions, for the development of an ethical culture survey to be administered to the University at periodic intervals. Sustaining these initiatives going forward is of particular importance.
I don’t know whether I’m seeing black helicopters here, but this raised a red flag. We start with the Freeh report being emphasized as an independent review — which this turkey has frequently opined it was anything but. I have no issues with an ethics policy being extended beyond students to the faculty and staff of the institution, just as long as the First Amendment is not stepped on. I have no qualms at all about tight policies regarding academic integrity. Social and personal responsibility, too, is a given in any halfway decent ethics policy, pun intended. My big question here is whether this new-found sensitivity to ethical practice by faculty and administrative staff not a vehicle for eventual suppression? Under the guise of preventing Sandusky scandals in the future, could the University be contemplating abrogating or limiting the right of free speech? The future of this proposed ethical renaissance is unclear, mired in a pig wallow of committees, task forces, and outside (quasi-independent) organizations (Ethics Resource Center).
I’ve written enough for now. Take a look at these documents and form your own opinions as to whether we’re really maintaining that laser focus on the future of the University.