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SaraKay Smullens

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The Failure of Trusteeship at Penn State

Posted: 01/12/12 02:38 AM ET

The recent events at Penn State and the ongoing uncovering of sexual abuse of hopeful innocents have sickened and saddened. If you live in Pennsylvania, as I do, the tragedies seem endless and terribly close to home -- the violated young children; college students shamed by their university leadership; the firing of a sports legend, now suffering cancer; endless finger pointing coupled by endless confusion about failed leadership.

It was only a matter of time before the public would begin to assess the role of trustees in this horror story and to find them seriously lacking. Most know that trustees hold fiduciary responsibility for the college or university they serve. However, fiduciary responsibility is far more than raising money or writing checks. It involves ethics, morality and responsibility for the welfare and well being of an institution and its community

According to Charles William Golding in Inside the Nonprofit Boardroom: "[A trustee holds] the very existence of the organization in trust for the people who contribute to it and for those who benefit from it. What does 'in trust' mean? It means that you nurture, care for, and protect the entire organization." He further explains: "(There is a) sense of security that comes with knowing that someone is overseeing things. People want to feel that someone is paying attention to what is going on. That's the job of the board...Serving on a board is not about you. It's about doing all you can to help the organization carry out its mission...The ideal situation is when the trustee experiences the intensity of the cause in his or her head, heart, and stomach."

For the past six years I have been a trustee of a small liberal arts college, admittedly a far different community than Penn State. Still, trusteeship is trusteeship, and above all, trustees must feel free to ask questions. When this story first unfolded my reaction was immediate: What did the trustees know about the grand-jury investigation of child-sex-abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as the long standing progression of events leading up to it? If they had been told about this, how were events characterized? What were trustee reactions and recommendations? If they were not told, why?

This week former provost and present university president Rodney Erickson said that although he was not present, the Penn State board was briefed by then President Graham B. Spanier. His explanation will surely lead to more questions about what trustees were actually told. When asked the seriousness of the allegations characterized in the briefing, Erickson responded: "I have no idea, because I was not there."

Ben Novak, a former Penn State alumni (class of 1965) trustee who served from 1988 to 2000, wrote that open discussion in board meetings was nonexistent. In his words published in a three part installment in the Centre Daily Times that he paid for himself: "The simple truth is that it is not simply one bad apple that has brought about 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." According to Novak, the board is controlled by the president and a few rich, connected trustees, and dissent is silenced: "I came onto the board thinking that it was a deliberative body such as one reads about in civic books. It is not."

Most are confused about the role of trustees and their relationship with the president of a college or university. The college or university president is hired by, reports to, and as we recently saw, can be fired by the board. It is the board of trustees that sets policy of a school, with recommendations and significant input by the college president, (and hopefully) his or her staff, faculty, students and members of the community. The president and the staff then carry out the policy on a day to day basis. According to Golding, "When a board becomes a true and solid sounding place for management, and when management has both the courage and the sense to listen, the positive effects can be remarkable on both sides."

When I became a trustee the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges sent trustees throughout our country a copy of Golding's book, which has a forward by William H. Gates, Sr. (yes, the father of the Bill Gates who is a household word and who has expanded his parents' enormous philanthropic commitments). I cannot help but wonder if President Spanier or his board of trustees read the following: "(The board and the president) should be able to ask any questions, with neither side feeling threatened or intimidated. It doesn't always work that way, but it should." And, "The conduct of all activities by all persons representing the corporation in any way, at any time, must be right and proper."

Author Golding also offers a prescient warning, words spoken by his father-in-law, a Greek immigrant and an American success story: "A corporation is like a fish. It rots from the head first."

 
 
 

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