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Penn State trustees chairman calls special meeting on lawsuit against NCAA

| Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, 12:23 p.m.

State Sen. Jake Corman would love Penn State to join his lawsuit against the NCAA that seeks to void the sanctions and fines the organization levied on the university's football program in a consent decree over the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

“I don't know what impact it would have on the final outcome of our case. But since part of our argument is the NCAA's treatment of Penn State was not valid, it would be nice if Penn State was fighting beside us,” said Corman, R-Centre County.

Even so, Corman, a Penn State graduate, said he and others are concerned about a growing divide on the university's board of trustees centered on the fallout from the child sex abuse scandal.

An outspoken group of alumni trustees who have been critical of how the university handled issues pertaining to the case will convene a special meeting of the board Monday. They want to weigh a proposal that calls for the university, which is named as a defendant in Corman's suit, to join the suit against the agency that oversees intercollegiate athletics.

The group includes alumni trustees William Oldsey, Edward Brown, Barbara Doran, Robert Jubelirer, Albert Lord, Anthony Lubrano, Ryan McCombie, Alice Pope and Adam Taliaferro, all of whom were elected to the board after the scandal. They sent board Chairman Keith Masser a letter last week, citing a bylaw that permits a special meeting when seven or more trustees request one.

In a move that reflects the growing schism on the board, Masser on Thursday notified trustees that he has scheduled a special board meeting Monday in State College but will not attend. He advised board members that they are free to make their own decisions about attendance.

Masser said he initially asked the group, whose request for a vote on the issue was tabled in November, to withdraw their request. “But they declined to do so,” he said.

He said no action can be taken at the special meeting unless a quorum of a majority of the board's 30 voting members is present.

“I continue to be concerned by the single-minded focus and the steady stream of resolutions that have required inordinate amounts of trustee time spent on one issue and deflected attention from a wide range of vital university issues. This is a significant problem,” Masser said.

Peggy Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University in Moon, agreed that Penn State trustees have a problem. She said the biggest appears to be an inability to discuss issues respectfully.

“Civility and discussion and building consensus are the building blocks of effective governance,” Outon said. “If you are going to have a meeting and it's a lawful meeting and you can attend, you should. The duty of a trustee is you attending meetings. You show up, and you vote your conscience.”

Jubelirer, former president pro tem of the Pennsylvania Senate and a new alumni trustee, said he was stunned by Masser's response.

“Personally, I like Keith, but this was irresponsible and inappropriate. He's the leader, and he should have taken a different approach,” Jubelirer said.

“If you are going to represent Penn State and all that is best for Penn State, why in the world would you want them to remain a defendant with the NCAA?” Jubelirer said.

The case is scheduled for arguments in Commonwealth Court on Jan. 5. It has drawn attention in collegiate athletic circles around the country for its attack on the beleaguered oversight agency's authority.

The alumni trustees, who lost a bid to join the Corman lawsuit when the board voted 14-10 to table action until January, say the issue may be moot by then, given the pending trial date.

Corman and state Treasurer Rob McCord want the court to void the NCAA's sanctions, including a $60 million fine. They believe the agency knew it lacked the authority to enforce the sanctions and used the “bluff” of a threatened program shutdown to force Penn State to accept the consent decree.

Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the American Council of Alumni and Trustees, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on higher education, said much of the animosity on the board appears to date back to the July 2012 deal that Penn State inked with the NCAA without full board approval.

“A $60 million deal arranged without the consent or knowledge of a large number of board members is a significant issue that does have to get worked out,” Poliakoff said. “There have to be changes, or the trajectory is going to be downward.”

He said efforts to limit public debate can morph into the kind of disputes that seem to be dividing the board.

“Free institutions thrive on vigorous debate. It has been a destructive pattern for governing boards to decide if there is media coverage that they have to agree on everything,” Poliakoff said. “Nobody would ever tell the Supreme Court you have to come up with unanimous opinions.”

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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