Penn State University is fighting efforts in Harrisburg to place state-related universities, of which Penn State is one, under provisions of the commonwealth’s Open Records law. This would require the folks in Happy Valley to provide the same transparency as other beneficiaries of the taxpayer’s largess. As the botched search for a new president of the state’s marquee institution illustrates, the need for such a law clear and compelling.
Even the Jerry Sandusky scandal failed to bring about the structural changes needed to transform the insular and secretive cultural of Penn State’s governing board and administration. While much about the sordid Sandusky saga remains the topic of debate, there is no doubt the cloistered culture of the university’s board resulted in a climate that allowed the Sandusky wound to fester. That culture allowed the tragic sexual abuse of young men to continue, destroyed a storied football program, ruined careers, and cast a shadow of shame over a one proud educational institution.
That the "reforms" so far have been little more than window dressing has come into focus as Penn State seeks to select its next president. Rather than conduct the search in an open and inclusive process, a sub-set of trustees have dominated the search to the point that they have excluded board members who are not part of the inner circle. Trustee Anthony Lubrano, elected after the scandal and an independent voice on the board, has been highly critical of the selection process and the failure to significantly involve all board members.
The process so far appears to ensure two things: the new president will take office under a cloud of controversy, and that person will be beholden to the power clique which made the selection. This is clearly not the way for Penn State to begin repairing its tattered reputation.
If you believe that where there is smoke there is fire, the fact the trustees are undertaking what will be one of their most important decisions in such a manner then it is reasonable to conclude that little or nothing about the institution’s governing culture has either been learned or has changed because of the Sandusky scandal.
Penn State, like virtually every other educational institution, constantly has its hands out asking for more tax dollars. Like baseball, apple pie and hot dogs, public education at all levels is a cultural icon. So taxpayers are generally supportive. But, more money does not necessarily guarantee a better education. So in a time of tight budgets education spending has come under more scrutiny. Penn State, along with the other state-related institutions wails and rends garments because their fiscal demands are not being met.
As they roam the halls of the state capitol panhandling for more taxpayer cash, the universities are also fighting to stave off inclusion in the Open Records law. Their goal is a never-ending stream of state dollars, without transparency and accountability for how those dollars are being spent. For some reason they believe they deserve a special exception to the rules other institutions receiving state funds must follow.
If anything, the Sandusky scandal and the presidential search fiasco should serve as glaring reasons why Penn State and the other state-related universities should and must be placed under provisions of the Open Records law. A case can even be made that the law should be strengthened across the boards.
Simply put, you cannot have too much transparency in government. Information is power. And the natural inclination of any bureaucracy is to preserve and expand its power. A strong, enforceable Open Records law is vital to preventing the abuse of such power. And the key to any new law covering the state-related universities must be enforceability. Compliance should be tied to funding: comply and the university gets state funds, fail to comply and funding is with-held.
Given the proven inability of Penn State’s board and administration to reform itself the minimum that must occur is to let the light of full disclosure shine into the dark recesses of the institution’s back rooms. Only then will we the people of Pennsylvania be able to regain trust and confidence in Penn State and it can be restored to its rightful place as one of our commonwealth’s most important and respected institutions.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
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