Richard Vedder on PSU Report and University Governance

Glenn Ricketts

Writing on his blog over at the CHE, NAS board member Richard Vedder has some thoughts on the Penn State sexual abuse scandal and the recently issued Freeh report which minced no words in assessing blame.   

 He notes that, beyond the fault assigned to high-profile figures such as former PSU president Graham Spanier and disgraced head football coach, the late Joe Paterno, the Freeh report also slams the school’s board of trustees for failing miserably in its fiduciary responsibilities.  As the school’s official governing body, the PSU board sat happily on the sidelines, clueless about the sordid conduct of the officials supposedly within the purview of its oversight responsibilities.  

Unfortunately, as Vedder observes, that’s probably no different than what the great majority of boards elsewhere would have done, had they been in similar circumstances.  Like their colleagues at Penn State, they’re quickly and easily co-opted by the administration, who know how to ply them with lavish annual dinners and free football tickets on the fifty-yard line.  And if board members do receive any information about campus affairs, it usually comes to them via the president and his staff.  

I have to wonder, as a practical matter, how involved most board members are likely to be in any case – most of them carry heavy obligations elsewhere, meet perhaps bi-annually,  and don’t follow university affairs too closely.  Many of them, I suspect, are highly flattered that they've been selected for board service. They also usually come with a strong sense of institutional loyalty – rah-rahs, really - and are instinctively averse to bad publicity: potential scandals should be diverted if they can, not investigated.  

So given the widespread logistical obstacles and inertia that inhibit college trustees, how can they be kept better informed, like it or not?  Vedder proposes a compelling, easy-to-implement change in the structure found at most schools: 

Specifically, I think every public university, and probably most private ones, should have an employee whose “boss” is not the university administration but the chair of the board of trustees, and whose function it is to independently inform the board of anything that could potentially harm the university. 

If, as a result of the Penn State fiasco, we’re finally going to see a fundamental overhaul of university governance, this seems like the optimal starting point.

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