We Are — Not Getting the Message

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

There is no doubt that Penn State is one of the nation’s great universities. With a worldwide reputation and graduates who have contributed greatly to literally every aspect of society, Penn State should be the commonwealth’s shining star.

Illustrious though it may be academically, Penn State’s efforts at self-governance continue to fall woefully short. The degree to which its governing culture was corrupt burst into the public consciousness during the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Years later the legal wrangling over the manner in which Penn State’s administration botched its response to Sandusky’s depraved actions continues to generate headlines.

You would think the Sandusky scandal would have caused Penn State to clean up its act. Despite taking some steps �" best described as public relations moves �" it is clear the university has not made the structural changes needed to bring about truly responsible governance.

Penn State’s resistance to true reform was brought to light recently by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale who released his first performance audit of the university. Results of that audit are deeply disturbing and reflect a governing culture that remains insular, unresponsive, and defensive.

Keep in mind that the taxpayers of Penn’s Woods spend hundreds of millions annually to subsidize Penn State and the commonwealth’s other state-related universities. Like all such recipients of public largess, Penn State annually lobbies the state legislature for more and more money �" while remaining unaccountable for what it already receives.

Unaccountable because, although it is significantly taxpayer funded, the university is not subject to provisions of the state’s Right-to-Know laws. Officials serve up a lame argument that it is best for research and related activities to be outside the reach of that law. But, they are using our money and lawmakers ought not give the university another cent until they are brought fully under the scope of Right-to-Know and Open Records laws.

DePasquale also hit upon another key point: the university’s Board of Trustees is too big and cumbersome and fails to give alumni proper representation. In fact, the board reinforced its bunker mentality by expanding its membership from 32 to 36, done to dilute the influence of the few alumni members who became more outspoken in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

Against this cultural backdrop of insular secrecy another disturbing trend has developed: fewer and fewer Pennsylvanians are being admitted to Penn State. According to the auditor general’s report, in the 1990-91 school year 76.5% of student’s in Happy Valley were Pennsylvania residents. By the 2015-16 term the percentage of in-state students had dropped to just 56.2%.

Predictably, Penn State’s response was to blame the state legislature for not giving it enough money. Left unsaid by the university’s administration was their own failure to control costs. Tuition costs are not the only factor in setting admissions policy and the numbers clearly demonstrate that in-state students are not benefiting to the degree they should from the dollars already allocated to Penn State from the General Assembly.

To sum up the situation, the administration at Penn State believes it deserves more of our tax dollars while admitting fewer in-state students, refusing to be transparent despite receiving those dollars, and clinging to a governing culture that resulted in one of the biggest scandals ever to hit a Pennsylvania university.

Auditor General DePasquale’s report should be yet another wake-up call to state legislators. Simply renewing Penn State’s annual appropriation without compelling reform is a dereliction of duty. For starters, not one cent should be transferred to the university until it is brought under the state’s transparency laws and a real plan for reform of the governing board is submitted. Then, no dollars should flow until those reforms are actually enacted. Lawmakers ought to also set quotas for the admission of in-state students ensuring, as Mr. DePasquale put it Pennsylvania students are “winning tie-breakers” in determining admission.

The situation at Penn State is, unfortunately reflective of the education bureaucracy at all levels in Pennsylvania. Amid arguments that “it’s for the kids” we pour millions more every year into education from pre-K to the university level without demanding accountability in how that money is spent and requiring improved results for the larger outlay of cash. The time has come to tie future appropriations to accountability and performance.

(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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