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Consultant coaches Penn State trustees on leadership

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 5:51 p.m.

Penn State University trustees met for the first time on Thursday with a leadership consultant who acknowledged officials made recommended changes but said they must continue to listen to critics' calls for action in the wake of a major scandal.

“The success of an organization in weathering a crisis comes down to an ability to commit to building trust while under fire in the aftermath,” said consultant Holly J. Gregory, whom Penn State hired in November because of former coach Jerry Sandusky's child sex-abuse scandal.

Gregory, a New York-based attorney, pledged to work with trustees to explore ideas about rebuilding “confidence and trust in the board.” The university said she would talk with trustees about the optimal size for the 30-member board, which stakeholder groups should be represented on it, term limits for trustees and communications.

For about an hour, the public could watch the meeting online through a university-sponsored video live-stream. After that, trustees met with the consultant privately, sparking more questions about transparency.

The closed-door session “certainly raises issues” for the board of trustees, which is subject to open meeting laws, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

“From a public access perspective, one shouldn't serve on a public board if you're uncomfortable discussing policy publicly,” she said.

Regardless of what officials call the gathering — a meeting, a retreat, a work session — if there's a quorum of members discussing agency business, the law applies, she said.

“With everything that's happened there, the situation cries out for public access. And for whatever reason, it's not happening. As least not as much as it could,” Melewsky said. “It's inconsistent to have a private meeting to talk about the way a public board should be enacting public policy.”

University spokeswoman Jill Shockey said the event was an informational “retreat” that gives trustees a chance to talk about issues “that they might undertake officially in public session.”

“It gives them an opportunity to be able to do that where they feel comfortable, where they're learning about possible recommendations,” she said.

Shockey said trustees would be unavailable for comment because they were in meetings. Calls to several trustees went unanswered.

Ryan Bagwell, an alumnus and two-time candidate for trustee who is running this spring, said transparency is his “No. 1 concern.”

“It's quite telling that they're discussing their governance issues, or the meat of their governance issues, behind closed doors,” Bagwell said. “I think it shows that they still don't understand how to be transparent.”

Changes the board made include providing for public comment at meetings, inviting alumni, staff and student representatives to meetings, strengthening the conflict of interest policy and limiting trustees' terms to three years.

“There is also general consensus that more remains to be done,” trustee Keith Eckel said during the public portion of the meeting. Eckel chairs the board's committee on governance and long-range planning, which is expected to address the board at its public meeting on Friday.

Changes address many recommendations from former Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview and some made in former FBI Director Louis Freeh's report on the Sandusky scandal, said Frank Guadagnino, a senior partner with Reed Smith law firm.

As a student activist, alumna Olivia Guevara Quijano wrote letters to the board pushing for sweatshop-free Penn State apparel. To her, opening public comment to students is “something great that the students should take advantage (of).”

Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-6646 or rskena@tribweb.com.

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