Penn State Trustees Seek To Rebuild Communications
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Keith Masser was busy enough running his 4,600-acre potato farm before his schedule got even tighter the past couple months.
In January, he became the vice chairman of Penn State's Board of Trustees. He likened the time he’s put into the leadership position to that of a second full-time job.
Masser and other board leaders are working to foster openness and ease tensions on a campus on the mend from the scandalous aftermath of child sex abuse charges against retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested last fall. Eight of 10 boys he is accused of abusing were attacked on campus, prosecutors allege.
The trustees remain a target of criticism from vocal alumni watchdog groups angered by what critics have called the board's rash decision to fire longtime coach Joe Paterno, days after Sandusky was charged.
Masser hopes increased interactions with students, faculty and other university groups are helping repair the rift. Board leaders recently met with some of the groups as part of an ongoing listening tour.
“A key component is accessibility,” Masser told The Associated Press in an interview this month.
“We're making ourselves accessible to them,” he said. “It creates transparency and openness, which is relieving some of the tension.”
The board has begun an internal investigation of the Sandusky case led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, but some critics have complained about a lack of transparency that they say has raised questions about trustees' motivations.
“We've heard it all. We got grilled in some of these listening groups,” Masser said before a recent trustees meeting in Hershey.
Masser assumed his post in January, when banking executive Karen Peetz was also elected chairwoman after their predecessors stepped down.
“ The biggest issue is keeping the difference between the Sandusky matters and the crisis ... and keeping focused on the future,” Peetz said. “A lot of what we're working on ... is to keep us focused on the future. That's an incredibly important role for the trustees as we deal with what's current, but we focus on where we go.”
Peetz has stressed three themes early in her tenure: changes in the board's committee structure related to governance; a continued focus on “justice for the victims”; and increased transparency.
The listening tours appeared to have quelled dissatisfaction among some members of one interested group, the University Faculty Senate, which in January had voted down a largely symbolic vote of no confidence in the board by a 2-to- 1 margin. The measure sought to chastise the board for its handling of the scandal.
There are lingering concerns among some faculty about the independence of Freeh's investigation, said dairy and animal sciences professor Daniel Hagen, the Faculty Senate chair who is also a member of the investigations committee.
Overall, though, Hagen has said, Peetz and Masser have stressed openness with the faculty. The Faculty Senate has also established a committee to look at the functions and responsibilities of the trustees in interacting with various university constituencies. That report is due May 31. Freeh’s report is also expected to be ready later this year.
Peetz also points to the formation of a new trustees committee focused on outreach as a way to increase communication.
One watchdog group, Penn Staters for Reforming the Board of Trustees, has said its mission is to amend the school's charter to change the structure and functioning of the board.
Trustee candidate Joanne C. DiRinaldo, an educator and researcher, said this week the board has shown “from my eyes, incremental baby steps. I would like to see more drastic attempts with transparency.”
She suggested potential changes in bylaws that govern rules of confidentiality of dissent on the board, and to open up trustees meeting to public participation.
Unlike other vocal critics on social media, DiRinaldo said she does not favor the entire resignation of the board because she could not judge how they made their decisions behind closed doors. “I will say they arrived at their decision hastily and without due process.”
Another candidate, former Penn State defensive back Adam Taliaferro, called the board's recent efforts to communicate “a step in the right direction, more than what's been done previously. ... I'm sure there’s more that can be done.” He suggested an interactive podcast, or live video chats, to talk with more alumni.
“They just want to know what's going on and be informed,” he said. “The more things we can do to inform the alumni, the better.”
Candidates who win election should prepare to spend a lot of time getting to work, trustee Paul Silvis said in Hershey.
“When individuals get on the board, they see things with a different set of eyes, they see what goes on,” he said. “We welcome them to come on in, get ready to spend some time.”