The Right Questions for Penn State

Stacy Brown of the Pennsylvania Independent—which, in the interests of full disclosure, CF launched but no longer controls in any way—is asking the right questions this morning in his story on the Penn State University Board of Trustees.  Let me give you three reasons why.

  1. A close look at the board must be part of any reasonable path forward for Penn State.  Every single board member who was paying attention could and should have known about the investigation of Jerry Sandusky months ago, even if the administration never said a word, because the Patriot-News here in Harrisburg (no small potatoes there) broke the story in the spring.  If the board did not ask questions and get answers after that, that’s a huge deal.  At the end of the day, they—no one else—are responsible for ensuring that Pennsylvania taxpayers’ generous investment in Penn State is used well.
  2. Even at this stage, when the charges against Mr. Sandusky remain unproven in a court of law, it is crystal clear that as president and head football coach, Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno did not face meaningful accountability until it was way too late.  Holding the president accountable (and, through him, other senior leaders) is any board’s main responsibility.  But that’s practically impossible at Penn State given the way the board is constituted.  First of all, it has 32 members.  Have you ever seen a group of 32 accomplish anything?  Secondly, those 32 are themselves accountable to a variety of constituencies.  Some are appointed by the Governor, some are elected by alumni, some are “elected by organized agricultural societies within the Commonwealth,” and so on.  That’s an unworkable system and other states, such as Virginia, have better ones.
  3. There are already indications that we won’t see true reform at Penn State.  The critical one is getting far too little play and it is this:  After initially making the longtime provost, Rodney Erickson, the interim president and promising a national search for a new leader, the board has ditched the search and given Dr. Erickson the job, period.  A far better approach would be the one the University of Colorado took in 2005 following a football-and-sex scandal that cost the president’s job, appointing a respected outsider, former U.S. Senator Hank Brown, to oversee a clean sweep.  He did such an effective job that when he retired, the Wall Street Journal called him “the best college president you’ve never heard of” and (somewhat jokingly) asked him to take the helm of Harvard.  I don’t know what Dr. Erickson knew and I don’t pretend to, but the CU approach is a much better way to inspire confidence from a shaken state than the same kind of insularity that seems to have created the crisis in the first place.

One final piece of disclosure:  I used to be a full-time employee of, and remain affiliated with, an organization that has many opinions on university governance and that Hank Brown helped to found.