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Stumble in presidential search opens PSU to criticism

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Reports that Penn State's top candidate for president is under investigation for padding his pay at a New York university gave way to a new wave of complaints on Wednesday from students and alumni frustrated with the leadership of Penn State's trustees.

“It's just a microcosm of everything that's gone wrong at Penn State for the last few years,” said former state senator and onetime Lieutenant Governor Robert Jubelirer.

Jubelirer, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for election as an alumni trustee this year, said most of the board's problems dating to the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal can be traced to a lack of transparency.

“I've said many times that when you do things in the dark and are not transparent, it creates mistrust and suspicion,” Jubelirer said.

Citing unnamed sources, the Albany Times Union on Tuesday reported that Dr.David R. Smith, president of the Upstate Medical University of the State University of New York had been the top candidate for the Penn State job until last week, when SUNY began investigating claims that he padded his paycheck.

Smith, a physician, withdrew as a candidate for chancellor of the University of Georgia System in November 2005. At the time, he was chancellor of Texas Tech University. He resigned from Texas Tech two months later. He was named president of Upstate Medical University in New York in September 2007.

Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, on Tuesday named an acting director for the Medical University and announced that Smith is on a leave of absence pending “an ongoing review of compensation issues at Upstate Medical University, as well as recent health issues.”

Smith could not be reached on Wednesday, and his lawyer, Michael Whitehead, did not return a call seeking comment.

Penn State officials have been tight-lipped about delays in the secretive presidential selection process.

University trustee Karen Peetz, who chairs the 13-member Presidential Selection Council and trustees' chairman Keith Masser, who sits on the council, did not respond to questions about reports that they were on the verge of naming Smith as their choice for university president when they abruptly cancelled a public meeting last week.

Spokesmen for Isaacson-Miller, the executive search firm hired to vet presidential candidates for Penn State, did not return emails or calls for comment.

Students are growing weary of the controversy that has hounded the school since the Sandusky scandal broke two years ago.

Penn State senior Brenden Dooley, vice president of the student body, said he and fellow students are irritated that trustees who launched their search a year ago have not completed their work.

“We've gone through so much in the past few years,” Dooley said. ”We're looking for new leadership. We want to find a launching pad to go off of, so not to have a set foundation at this point is disappointing.”

Ryan Bagwell, a Penn State alum who has filed repeated requests for records surrounding board actions in recent years, said the latest reports out of New York, if true, are “mind-boggling.”

Gov. Tom Corbett, a nonvoting member of the Penn State board who launched the Sandusky investigation when he was attorney general, however, had no complaints.

“He is confident and supportive of the council and is anxiously awaiting their recommendation,” said Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni.

Some state lawmakers, however, said the reports underscore the need for reform.

“It speaks to the governance culture at Penn State. The mistakes that have been made over the past several years point to that governance culture being too insular, too opaque,” said state Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne County.

Yudichak, a Penn State graduate who has been working with other university alums and lawmakers, said the group plans to introduce reforms later this month. Yudichak said open records, ethics disclosure and board structure are all being reviewed.

“I believe you'll see substantial change,” Yudichak said.

Freelance writer Anna Orso contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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