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Pitt, Penn State presidential searches on divergent paths

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

Vastly different presidential searches are unfolding at Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh, neither of which is subject to the state's open records or ethics laws.

Pitt has seated a diverse committee of trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and students to steer its search for an executive to replace Chancellor Mark Nordenberg next year. Stephen Tritch, who chairs the board of trustees, “understands the notion of shared governance,” said Michael Spring, Pitt's Faculty Senate president.

Penn State trustees, who limited the university's Presidential Selection Council to a small group of influential board members, didn't get the message of openness contained in a $6 million report commissioned when the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal broke, critics say.

The Faculty Senate offered Penn State leaders extensive suggestions for conducting the search, according to John O'Donnell, a professor of hospitality management, “but the administration just ignores them.”

Penn State's board chairman, Keith Masser, did not return calls or emails seeking comment. Nor did Faculty Senate Chairman Brenton Yarnal.

In a statement on Penn State's website, Trustee Karen Peetz, who chairs the Selection Council, defended the process. She said staff, students, faculty and alumni participated in the initial phase of the search, establishing criteria and vetting a large pool of candidates.

Angry alumni, outraged by the board's handling of the Sandusky matter, rallied last year to oust several trustees, replacing them with like-minded allies who are ardent critics of board operations.

This month, members of that group are expected to introduce legislative proposals in Harrisburg to alter the composition of the 32-member board.

Yet none of the new trustees secured a seat on the search committee, which includes Masser, two former board chairs, nine trustees who were board members when the Sandusky scandal broke and the chairman of Penn State's last fundraising drive.

“Given the size and complexity of Penn State, I'm a little surprised there is not faculty on their search, but that might be because of the pressure they've been under,” Spring said.

Pitt and Penn State opted to conduct confidential, national searches. Authority for the hire rests with trustees.

Openness an issue

As state-related research universities, Pitt and Penn State receive millions of dollars a year in state subsidies and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants. Their leaders are considered among the most powerful figures in the state.

Pitt has escaped the scrutiny that slammed Penn State when the Sandusky case broke two years ago, triggering the firing of the late Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham Spanier.

Spanier and two former administrators are awaiting trial on allegations that they covered up for Sandusky, a former assistant football coach convicted of molesting 10 boys.

Complaints about the presidential search process surfaced last week when board leaders abruptly canceled a public meeting, scheduled ostensibly to vote on a single candidate. Instead, the board met privately and issued a statement on Friday that said “more time for consideration of possible candidates was needed.”

Gov. Tom Corbett, an ex-officio member of the board, told the Tribune-Review that trustees agreed to cede authority to the Selection Council and vote on its candidate. But others said that process goes against recommendations for openness made in the Freeh Report, which was commissioned by the board.

Penn State trustees say they adopted most of the 119 recommendations former FBI director Louis Freeh spelled out after reviewing what happened in the Sandusky investigation. Yet, more than a year after Freeh completed his work, two recommendations regarding openness are listed on the university's website as “ongoing and continuing.”

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a West Chester University professor on leave of absence, received his doctorate from Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education. He introduced a bill this year to reduce the PSU board to 23 members and bring the university under full provisions of the Right to Know and Ethics acts.

“The University of Pittsburgh's approach is the approach we find in most colleges and universities today, because it recognizes that a diversity of viewpoints is the best way to select a new leader,” Dinniman said. “A new president is going to have to communicate with staff, students, faculty, community leaders. If the committee represents diverse voices, you're going to select a leader who ... will be welcomed.”

Despite a trend to keep candidates' names secret in executive searches, Dinniman said Penn State should bring finalists to campus for interviews with trustees, faculty, staff and students.

Carnegie Mellon University and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education did that this year when hiring chief executives. Participants signed confidentiality agreements, but their input was key.

State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said students, faculty, staff and business people interviewed the candidates and offered assessments before the full board of governors met them.

Pitt trustees haven't said whether they will bring finalists to campus, but there's a precedent for that. Former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey chaired the last Pitt chancellor search and said his committee brought three finalists to the full board for interviews.

“We had ranked Mark Nordenberg first, but we would have been satisfied with any of them,” he said.

Roddey said Pitt's search committee mirrors the one he chaired nearly two decades ago. A consultant advised Pitt to be as inclusive as possible, he said, because Pitt underwent several tough years before the last search.

Freelance writer Anna Orso contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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