We have to wonder if anyone happened to break out a dictionary before touting changes to the Board of Trustees standing orders as efforts to “enhance accessibility and communication.”
For reference, Merriam-Webster defines “accessible” as, in part: “capable of being reached” and “easy to communicate or deal with.”
True, prior to Friday, no outsiders — except invited guests — could get a word in at a board meeting under its existing rules. Last week, the board updated its rules to allow “public comments” at future meetings.
The catch: Only 10 people can speak per meeting, at a maximum of three minutes per person, and the whole thing can last no more than 30 minutes.
If more than 10 people sign up to sound off — a plausible scenario, given the fact that the university counts more than 96,000 current students and about 557,000 living alumni — speakers will be selected based on the time they applied and relevance to topics on the agenda.
Some of these rules seem reasonable, for the sake of organization.
An “effort,” sure. But these brief exchanges between a lucky less-than-one-hundredth of one percent of the Penn State population and the trustees aren’t going to fix communication issues.
A few minutes per person is barely enough time to scrape the surface on complex university decisions or issues related to the Jerry Sandusky case.
What happens to the questions or statements that go unaddressed at the meetings? Can people contact board members for follow-up, if needed?
A change that's being hailed as an attempt to let people talk more openly with the trustees looks like it will do little to raise the collective voice of the university community to more than a whisper inside the meeting room.
And, though a theme through plenty of university reforms lately, it’s worth repeating: It shouldn’t have taken the Sandusky case to spur this kind of change, however slight, in the first place.
Penn State might be a multi-billion dollar enterprise. But the board needs to remember that, when it comes down to it, they're the leaders of a community — not a corporation.
Real accessibility is more than scripted statements and monthly online updates.
If the trustees want to prove that they’re really “capable of being reached,” they’d extend the public comment segment of their meetings, ditch the buzzwords in their responses and show the community they’re capable of candid conversation.
Penn Staters, more than ever, need to know that their leaders want to listen longer than just a half an hour at a time, six times a year.