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Penn State trustees cancel meetings surrounding plan to name new president Friday

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:57 a.m.
Penn State's trustees had been set to name a successor Friday to president Rodney Erickson, who said he will retire no later than June 2014. But the planned meeting was canceled.

STATE COLLEGE — An abrupt about-face by Penn State officials who canceled a public meeting to name a university president on Friday triggered more complaints from critics who say the university's culture of secrecy erodes public trust.

Trustees told the Tribune-Review that the board's 12-member search committee was prepared to introduce a candidate for president on Thursday evening and vote the next morning. When several of the 32 board members balked, saying no one consulted them, officials called off the meeting.

Board Chairman Keith Masser did not return calls for comment.

Board spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz issued a terse email explaining that the meeting scheduled “to discuss a personnel decision has been delayed indefinitely, to allow for further consideration on the matter.”

The name of the candidate remains a closely guarded secret.

Two years ago, university trustees fired longtime Penn State President Graham Spanier and the late Hall of Fame head football coach Joe Paterno as the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal unfolded. Spanier and two other administrators await trial on charges that they covered up molestations that landed Sandusky in prison last year.

Outraged alumni subsequently rallied to elect several trustees, who have urged a substantial overhaul of board operations.

Most trustees whom the Trib contacted declined to talk publicly. But Eastern Pennsylvania businessman Anthony Lubrano, the most outspoken new trustee, said the presidential search process illustrates a troubling lack of transparency that extends to board members.

“From the outset of this process, I have voiced my discontent, beginning with respect to the composition of the presidential selection council. Of the 12 trustees on the council, five are from business and industry, while only one is alumni-elected. I, for one, do not like the message this sends to the alumni community.

“Apparently, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Lubrano said.

Former trustee Ben Novak said Spanier's hiring 18 years ago happened similarly: A committee of influential insiders excluded other board members.

“When it came time to actually consider candidates for the job, the whole process was closed,” he said. “A week or so before the meeting at which their choice was to be approved, a notice was sent to all trustees advising them of the selection, and the next day the newspapers were profiling Penn State's next president.”

Experts said many university presidential searches are confidential and culminate in unanimous votes by trustees to appoint a single candidate who is presented for consideration.

Yet it is not unheard of for trustees to be given the names of several finalists. And some universities have demonstrated that openness works, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington.

“The Minnesota State College and University System announced its three top candidates in the newspaper, and the state of Florida system got an excellent candidate when it had an open process,” Poliakoff said. “Working behind closed doors, with limited board participation, is not a recipe for the healing that Penn State needs.”

Lubrano said the board “must demonstrate our support for the next president by a unanimous vote. The only way to achieve such a vote is to empower the members so they feel as though they are participants, rather than spectators in the process.”

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, said the situation underscores the need for the Legislature to require Penn State to comply fully with the state's public disclosure, open meeting and ethics acts. He has introduced legislation to require that.

“Penn State is one of the largest employers in Pennsylvania. They have almost 100,000 students. Because of the impact these decisions have, not just on Penn State but on the whole commonwealth, I would prefer that these decisions be made publicly,” Conklin said.

A spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, an alumni group, said members are disappointed.

“Frankly, we are not surprised by yet another ‘ready, fire, aim' approach by the Penn State trustees. Their actions to date have resulted in such a lack of trust and confidence in them, among alumni, that we can only hold our breath and hope for the best,” said Maribeth Roman Schmidt.

The president will replace Rodney Erickson, the former provost appointed to replace Spanier two years ago. Erickson plans to retire June 30 but has said he would leave sooner if the university names a new leader.

The university's 18th president will lead more than 96,000 students across 22 campuses.

Anna Orso is a freelance writer. Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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