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Ex-PSU trustee blasts university's power structure

| Monday, Jan. 9, 2012

A former member says the secretive way Penn State University's board of trustees operates and the power wielded by an inner circle paved the way for what some see as a leadership crisis.

Ben Novak, an alumnus who served as a trustee from 1988 to 2000 and has announced his interest in serving again, said that during his tenure the board was run by a small group of influential members with the rest of the trustees following their lead like a flock of sheep.

Novak considered himself a sheep. But he said in an interview Sunday that his fellow board members regarded him as a nut.

"I was the Ron Paul of the Penn State Board of Trustees for 12 years," said Novak, 68, a retired lawyer and professor, referring to the Republican presidential candidate who is viewed by some in his own party as an outsider.

Novak said he was sharing his reflections in paid statements appearing in the Centre Daily Times and on his website to help shed light on his view of the inner workings of the 32-member board, which also has 16 emeritus members. Along with pushing for reforms to the university's governance, he is promoting his candidacy for the trustees' board.

"The simple truth is that it is not simply one bad apple that has brought the humiliating situation we face. Rather, it is the way the board of trustees has structured the whole governance of the university that has made this scandal not only possible but almost inevitable," wrote Novak of Ave Maria, Fla.

Efforts to reach university officials and trustees' board Chairman Steve Garban on Sunday were unsuccessful.

Novak's ads are appearing in the State College newspaper just as efforts begin to identify potential candidates to run for the board in the first trustee elections since the child sex abuse scandal broke involving former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky.

Three alumni-controlled seats and two agricultural community-controlled seats are up for election this year. The board seats have drawn widespread interest amid the Sandusky scandal.

Alumni outraged over the trustees' handling of the situation have formed a grassroots group, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, that wants to unseat incumbents and demand more transparency in the university's governance. The group respects Novak for speaking out, spokeswoman Maribeth Schmidt said.

"His work provides details on the power structure and running of the university that was previously unknown to many alumni and supporters," she said.

Novak said divisions of power on the board were obvious when Graham Spanier was hired as university president in 1995. Spanier resigned Nov. 9 in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. Longtime football coach Joe Paterno was fired the same night.

The former trustee said board members were told repeatedly the most important act of the board is hiring a president. But when it came time to hire Spanier, he said, most trustees, including himself, were kept in the dark until a final selection was made.

Novak said he first learned of Spanier's credentials from newspaper profiles. He also reached out to one of Spanier's antagonists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Spanier was serving as chancellor. The antagonist admitted he had differences with the chancellor but said Spanier would make a good president.

"When I got a recommendation from his greatest antagonist, I thought I don't have a solid basis for opposing him," Novak said.

The bulk of the trustees met the prospective president for the first time during a cocktail hour that preceded the vote on his appointment, Novak said.

"At the cocktail hour, the entire board, a majority of whom, like myself, had never heard of Graham Spanier until a few days before, had an average of barely two minutes each to say hello and shake his hand," Novak wrote.

"Immediately after the cocktail hour, the board filed into the next room and, as the first order of business, dutifully voted him in as the next president of The Pennsylvania State University. Baaa."

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