Penn St. trustees seek to rebuild communications

Keith Masser was busy enough running his 4,600-acre potato farm

before his schedule got even tighter the past couple months.

In January, he became the vice chairman of Penn State’s Board of

Trustees. He likened the time he’s put into the leadership position

to that of a second full-time job.

Masser and other board leaders are working to foster openness

and ease tensions on a campus on the mend from the scandalous

aftermath of child sex abuse charges against retired assistant

football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested last fall. Eight of

10 boys he is accused of abusing were attacked on campus,

prosecutors allege.

The trustees remain a target of criticism from vocal alumni

watchdog groups angered by what critics have called the board’s

rash decision to fire longtime coach Joe Paterno, days after

Sandusky was charged.

Masser hopes increased interactions with students, faculty and

other university groups are helping repair the rift. Board leaders

recently met with some of the groups as part of an ongoing

listening tour.

”A key component is accessibility,” Masser told The Associated

Press in an interview this month.

”We’re making ourselves accessible to them,” he said. ”It

creates transparency and openness, which is relieving some of the

tension.”

The board has begun an internal investigation of the Sandusky

case led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, but some critics have

complained about a lack of transparency that they say has raised

questions about trustees’ motivations.

”We’ve heard it all. We got grilled in some of these listening

groups,” Masser said before a recent trustees meeting in

Hershey.

Masser assumed his post in January, when banking executive Karen

Peetz was also elected chairwoman after their predecessors stepped

down.

”The biggest issue is keeping the difference between the

Sandusky matters and the crisis … and keeping focused on the

future,” Peetz said. ”A lot of what we’re working on … is to

keep us focused on the future. That’s an incredibly important role

for the trustees as we deal with what’s current, but we focus on

where we go.”

Peetz has stressed three themes early in her tenure: changes in

the board’s committee structure related to governance; a continued

focus on ”justice for the victims”; and increased

transparency.

The listening tours appeared to have quelled dissatisfaction

among some members of one interested group, the University Faculty

Senate, which in January had voted down a largely symbolic vote of

no confidence in the board by a 2-to-1 margin. The measure sought

to chastise the board for its handling of the scandal.

There are lingering concerns among some faculty about the

independence of Freeh’s investigation, said dairy and animal

sciences professor Daniel Hagen, the Faculty Senate chair who is

also a member of the investigations committee.

Overall, though, Hagen has said, Peetz and Masser have stressed

openness with the faculty. The Faculty Senate has also established

a committee to look at the functions and responsibilities of the

trustees in interacting with various university constituencies.

That report is due May 31. Freeh’s report is also expected to be

ready later this year.

Peetz also points to the formation of a new trustees committee

focused on outreach as a way to increase communication.

Skeptics remain.

One watchdog group, Penn Staters for Reforming the Board of

Trustees, has said its mission is to amend the school’s charter to

change the structure and functioning of the board.

Trustee candidate Joanne C. DiRinaldo, an educator and

researcher, said this week the board has shown ”from my eyes,

incremental baby steps. I would like to see more drastic attempts

with transparency.”

She suggested potential changes in bylaws that govern rules of

confidentiality of dissent on the board, and to open up trustees

meeting to public participation.

Unlike other vocal critics on social media, DiRinaldo said she

does not favor the entire resignation of the board because she

could not judge how they made their decisions behind closed doors.

”I will say they arrived at their decision hastily and without due

process.”

Another candidate, former Penn State defensive back Adam

Taliaferro, called the board’s recent efforts to communicate ”a

step in the right direction, more than what’s been done previously.

… I’m sure there’s more that can be done.” He suggested an

interactive podcast, or live video chats, to talk with more

alumni.

”They just want to know what’s going on and be informed,” he

said. ”The more things we can do to inform the alumni, the

better.”

Candidates who win election should prepare to spend a lot of

time getting to work, trustee Paul Silvis said in Hershey.

”When individuals get on the board, they see things with a

different set of eyes, they see what goes on,” he said. ”We

welcome them to come on in, get ready to spend some time.”