I have always been, and remain extremely honored to serve as a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees. As one ofthe elected representatives of the agriculture industry, I am keenly aware of the educational mission of our Land-Grant University. The entire board bears the significant responsibility to be good stewards of that mission and to support the Penn State values of teaching, research and service. Further, it is our responsibility to oversee a governance structure that supports 96,000 students across 24 campuses, as well as our faculty and staff.
Unfortunately, since terrible events came to light more than 18 months ago, we are seeing a well-funded and highly vocal constituency that chooses to forget those priorities. They have adopted a style of communication with a “burn it all to the ground to prove a point” approach to the business of this great university. In doing so, they have resorted to personal attacks and misinformation to cloud the issues and distort reality.
The reality is this: Through self-imposed urgency, the Board of Trustees, administration and staff have brought sweeping reform and best practice processes to nearly every aspect of governance and oversight.
Over the past year, the board has considered input from the Pennsylvania Auditor General, the Freeh Group, the Middle States Accreditation Commission, the University Faculty Senate and several other external stakeholders to make real reforms to our governance and processes. The goal has been to realize efficiencies, enhance transparency and establish a structure that addresses the needs of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and community.
Earlier this year, the board expanded its number of oversight committees and opened its meetings to the public, as well as created a public comment period during board meetings for the first time in the university’s history.
In May, further reforms were enacted, including: term limits for all board members; the removal of the Penn State president and governor of Pennsylvania as voting board members; and a strong and more transparent conflict of interest policy.
As a result, Penn State now has the smallest board (30) of any of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities, requires the largest number of members (majority) for a quorum and provides alumni the greatest voice in its university governance with nine slots. While some question the size of our board, it’s worth noting that numbers vary greatly among universities. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides for up to 78 voting members. There is still more to be done, and we continue to consider expert advice and counsel.
As a state-related university, Penn State is covered in Chapter 15 of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, which requires it to provide extensive financial data to the state and general public. These reports are available for review at http://www.controller.psu.edu/Divisions/ControllersOffice/reports.html. Penn State also provides thousands of pages of budget information on its website: http://www.budget.psu.edu/factbook/. When coupled with numerous audits — including an annual financial audit of our state appropriation by Pennsylvania’s Auditor General — these disclosures provide substantial information to the public for how state funding is utilized by Penn State.
Since November, 2011, the Board of Trustees sought to identify where failures occurred in governance and compliance, and has worked to implement reforms to enhance our governance and improve our structure. Our commitment to that process and our refusal to be distracted by agendas not conducive to that charge have enabled us to accomplish what very few educational institutions have been able to do.
We have already changed or implemented numerous administrative policies and procedures, including national employment searches to ensure the best and brightest candidates are identified. As a result, new safety and compliance personnel are now in place and continue to exceed the requirements of the Clery Act, a federal law related to campus safety. The university has implemented and conducted more than 10,000 background checks on new and existing employees — and trained those employees on how to identify and report crimes.
It is because of these accomplishments that third-party validators such as George Mitchell and the Middle States Accreditation Commission have praised our efforts and commitment to improving safety and governance. Just this month, Moody’s investment service lauded Penn State’s continuing improvements, giving us a mid-year “credit positive.”
We certainly understand and respect the criticism of those who haven’t supported our actions. But we will not allow personal attacks and agendas to prevent the work necessary for Penn State to rise from what some consider our darkest hour. By working together, our university community can show the world a renewed sense of responsibility and an unwavering commitment to learn from the past as we provide for the future.
Keith Eckel is a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees is Chairman of the Legal and Compliance Committee.