"By the time someone gets here in 2014, it will be just a distant memory,” said Board of Trustees Chairperson Karen Peetz.
I’ve been counting and this week marked the 27th time that my Penn State pride has made me the recipient of a Jerry Sandusky remark. In a meeting with a number of health care professionals, I mentioned that I used to work at Hershey Medical Center. A physician said “Oh, Penn State.” I said, “Yes, I also did my undergraduate work there.” He said, “Did you know Jerry Sandusky?”
Everyone laughed – well, everyone except me.
So, Karen Peetz – that “moving on” and “distant memory” thing?
Not working so well outside your Ivory Tower.
At the Board of Trustees meeting on November 16, 2012, engaged alumni, some of them representing 15,000 other engaged alumni and supporters, asked specific questions regarding Board actions. Their comments made it clear that a significant rift remains between the Board and a substantial portion of the Alumni. Despite entreaties to move on and lip service to transparency, actual Board behaviors appear designed to confuse the alumni, students and the general public and to obfuscate/deny the truth.
Consider the following:
1. When a vote was necessary, Board resolutions were called by number, not a title or verbal description. The content of the resolution exists in agenda books not available to those in attendance at the meeting. How does a secret resolution satisfy the definition of transparency?
2. In August 2012, the Board established a public comment section of their meeting. Questions were submitted in advance so that answers could be prepared. At the September 2012 meeting, a non-scripted response “We did not read the entire Freeh report” resulted in negative publicity.
Well, that’s what happens when you go off script.
The truth sometimes slips out.
3. Questions were again invited for the November 2012 meeting and after submitting questions in good faith; rules were changed on meeting day and the Board refused to answer the invited questions. The Chair responded with an insincere and condescending “thank you”. Think about the optics of this decision. People are invited to submit questions, people travel to ask the questions and then they are refused an answer.
The cavalier decision-making and the insincere and condescending
“thank yous” are behaviors characteristic of despots, not leaders.
4. When later questioned about the concerns raised at the meeting, the board chair replied, “That’s very disappointing. I would expect alumni to get behind the university when it needs them the most.”
Where was the Board of Trustees when the University needed them the most? Did they get behind the University? No. They were holding secret meetings, “losing” meeting minutes, structuring events to assure plausible deniability, and labeling people with legitimate questions “a bunch of anarchists”.
Let’s say it clearly – alumni are behind the University. Many alumni are not behind a Board of Trustees who act with callous disregard for University regulations, refuse to answer questions that it invites on its webpage, try to control the narrative by denigrating the concerns of the nation’s largest and most loyal alumni, and act dismissively of people raising legitimate issues - including the dismissal of recommendations from the State Auditor General by trustee Carl Shaffer who said “This is our university — this university is unique in a lot of ways from other universities. I think it’s up to this board to decide how we’re going to take this university forward.”
This Board’s arrogance and tone-deafness is mind-boggling.
The phrase “Ivory Tower” is defined as a state of sheltered and unworldly intellectual isolation. The term is usually applied to university faculty. However, if there is an Ivory Tower at University Park, it is inhabited by a Board of Trustees who engages in callous and condescending behaviors while displaying an elitist “we know better than you” attitude. Perhaps too many years in corporate businesses have built up ivory walls so insular that the Board has forgotten a University’s purpose. A University is a place of ideas – lots of ideas, different ideas and the right to challenge ideas. A University is a place for free thought and diverse thought. Imposing dogmatism, requiring adherence to groupthink, and squashing dissent is the antithesis of a University. It is far more representative of a dictatorship under siege.
Only when this siege mentality is replaced by thoughtful, collegial and transparent discussion, will this University “move on.”
Originally published Nov. 23, 2012