Almost 160 years have passed since nine of the 13 trustees of the Farmers’ High School met for the first official time, and while the Penn State Board of Trustees has naturally changed over those years, some say it hasn’t been enough.
When Rep. Scott Conklin introduced various reforms for the board this week, he noted that some of the bylaws haven’t changed since the founding of the school in 1855. The proposed legislation, which is based on Auditor General Jack Wagner’s recommendations, calls for changes in size, membership, elections, ethics and term length.
To understand the many recommendations and criticisms of the past year, a look into the history of the board can be helpful.
Board size and power
While recent reforms call for a reduction in voting members of the board, there exists a history of criticism that the power of the board has belonged to only a few members — the Executive Committee.
Ron Smith, professor emeritus of the university, taught at Penn State between 1968 and 1996 and is currently researching the history of the board. After the Board of Trustees Executive Committee was formed in 1874, a few select members were given the privilege of holding the decision-making power at the university, he said.
According to the archives of meeting minutes, the committee was formed to “represent the trustees in the interims of the meetings of the Board, to superintend the expenditure of the appropriations made by the Board and, generally, to manage the affairs of the institution.”
Roger L. Geiger, senior scientist for the Center for the Study of Higher Education and distinguished professor of higher education, said he could not verify if the criticism of the executive committee was just or not.
“The allegations about the Penn State board were that it was controlled by a small number of insiders that created policy,” he said.
With regard to whether the university should decrease the total number of voting members, Geiger said that there are problems with small boards and problems with larger ones. He also said he believes the problems at Penn State are not due to the structure of the board.
Michael Bezilla, director of research communications with Penn State University Relations and author of Penn State: An Illustrated History, said the number of trustees has never been downsized. Starting with 13 trustees in 1855, the board has had 31 trustees since 1905 and 32 trustees since 1931, he said.
“The number of trustees has fluctuated over the years. It has been changed at least three times,” he said. “Who’s to say it can’t be changed again? Although not without precedent.”
Conklin’s legislation also includes removing the university president from the board, and making the governor of the commonwealth a non-voting ex officio member.
The governor has always been an official ex officio member of the board. In 1855, then-Gov. James Pollock was even placed on the first special committee to inspect various Pennsylvania lands that had been offered to purchase for the placement of the institution, according to university archives.
Involvement in the university
When the board was thrown under the spotlight on Nov. 9, 2011, it stayed within its reaches and authority, but the question remains of how involved members of the board should be.
“I see the board as a rubber stamp,” Smith said, meaning that they put their mark on the university with their approvals or dismissals of university policy, not the development of it.
Smith said he believes this idea of a “rubber stamp” continues today, where the board merely approves actions and policies without any real discussion or questioning of the matters. Without a real ability to change the university itself, the members of the board get “the honor of being on the board,” he said.
Geiger said that university boards tend to ratify important policy decisions rather than make policy themselves.
“Most boards are aware that they can’t micromanage an institution,” he said. “For the most part they simply ratify most administrative decisions.”
When a board does try to set policies, it can lead to unwelcome situations, Geiger said. Part of this is due to the removed nature of board members to their university, as well as a general lack of knowledge on how to make decisions in higher education.
Geiger said he previously was part of an association that tried to educate board members on how to run an institution of higher learning.
“Board members freely admitted ‘I’ve run a company for 30 years but I don’t understand how a university operates,’ ” he said. “They need guidance.”
A year ago, then-President Graham Spanier resigned from the university, and in the same week, the board appointed Rodney Erickson, who was Executive Vice President and Provost at the time, as his successor. In the history of replacing presidents, the board has not always acted so quickly, and at those times the board has become even more involved.
With the death of President George Atherton in June 1906, Chairman of the Board General James Beaver took over the president’s responsibilities for a full two years before the board finally settled on Edwin Sparks as the next president.
A similar situation arose after President Ralph Hetzel died during his presidency in 1947 and Chairman James Milholland became the interim for two years before the appointment of President Milton S. Eisenhower.
In the first instance when Beaver took over the presidential responsibilities, Bezilla said as the chairman of the board, Beaver was highly involved in the matters of the school.
“He was a strong personality,” Bezilla said. “He loved to have personal interaction with the students.”
When Hetzel died, it made sense to take a longer approach to the presidential search process for various reasons, including the fact that they had not searched for a president in 20 years, Bezilla said.
Transparency and criticism
Conklin’s and Wagner’s recommendations are not the first forms of outside input the board has heard this year.
Both Conklin’s and Wagner’s reforms came after former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s 119 recommendations for the university in his report in July. The board has also been subject to innumerable demands and requests by individuals and alumni groups such as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, PSU-ReBOT, the Freehdom Fighters and others.
Bezilla said that in the entire history of the university, the board has never received so much criticism as they have in the last year.
“I think it is fairly unprecedented,” he said.
In terms of transparency, Bezilla said that in the entire history of the board, transparency has grown naturally along with a more generally open society. “I think you see a gradual process of a board that has become more transparent, more active,” he said.
The Board Domain
Though the question remains of how much the board has truly done in the last 160 years, it has still been the official top of the line for the entirety of Penn State history. In this history, the domain of the board has been wide and encompassing.
In terms of approving tuition and costs for students, the board has seemingly always had the final say in these financial matters. Following the Great Depression of 1929, the board took an “unprecedented step” in 1933 when they reduced the cost of room and board by 10 to 15 percent, according to “Penn State: An Illustrated History.”
This decrease in costs to the students, as approved by the trustees, have been seldom over years, as evidenced by a 6 percent tuition increase in July 2000, and the 45-year-low percentage increase in 2012 with an average 2.4 percent increase, as previously reported.
The most consistent domain of the board includes the appointment of the university’s presidents. The board has appointed 17 school presidents since the school opened in February 1859 with Evan Pugh in the role of the first leader of the university.
The rest of the board’s domain over the years doesn’t just include approving the erection of new buildings on campus, the development of branch campuses, or the transforming departments, but also includes some different and controversial subjects.
For example, the board was the deciding factor in allowing for an annual dance at the institution in 1890. According to a December 1889 edition of The Free Lance, this seemingly-difficult decision came after the students made it clear that there was an “otherwise unenjoyable social condition of the institution.”
The article even notes that some members of the board were outright opposed to the idea of dancing and that “the character of the men now at the institution is far different from that of its students of past years,” despite what the trustees may think.
However, the students also realized when the board made decisions benefiting the students and overall welfare of the school. An article in The Free Lance — which later evolved into The Daily Collegian — from February 1892 thanks the board for its decisions to shorten the school year by two weeks and the hiring of a physical trainer.
“In behalf of the students, we most heartily thank the gentleman for the Board for their action in these matters which so intimately concern us,” the article read.
Another student-related decision of the board regarded the required chapel service attendance for students up until the 1920s. After prohibiting undergraduates from having cars in June 1923, the board shortly thereafter rejected a student petition to abolish the mandatory chapel services.
While the board rejected the motion from the students at the time, Hetzel somewhat effortlessly persuaded the board to abolish the required weekday services in 1927 and in 1930 he did the same for the required Sunday services.
Hetzel even got the board to permit students to have cars in 1936, displaying the influence of the president on the board more than anything else.