Penn State Board of Trustees Public Comment Session Closed to Public and Press

By Katherine Watt

Arriving at the Penn Stater at about 7:40 a.m. and walking to the wing with the Senate Suite, there were no listings for the Penn State Board of Trustees meetings on the paper or electronic November 4 event bulletin boards. (Someone later told me she checked in with hotel staff, who consulted their own paper event listings for the day, and could not find any information about the trustees meeting.)

In the hallway near the Senate Suite stood a woman in a black suit, next to a guard rope and a sign reading “Authorized Access Only.” Beyond the rope and the apparent security guard (she refused to give her name or job title), was a glassed-in room filled with men and women in suits, mingling among round tables with white tablecloths and stemmed glassware. A breakfast buffet stood in the hallway to the right, also beyond the barricade.

When advised that I was looking for the Board of Trustees meeting to attend the public comment session, she informed me that the session was an executive session, closed to the public. I identified myself as a reporter; she said it was also closed to the press.

When asked for her name to cite a source for the information, she summoned backup: Tom Poole, Penn State Vice President for Administration. Poole said it wasn’t an executive session, but it was a closed session, and added that university officials would review the video and then post it for public review next week.

A man walked up to me in the hallway and introduced himself as Jeff Goldsmith, chair of Penn State Board Watch and one of three approved public commenters. He handed me a copy of his press release:

Jeff Goldsmith, Chair of Penn State Board Watch, condemned the latest moves by the Penn State Board of Trustees to minimize public involvement in meetings and to shield themselves from accountability for their actions, during today’s public comment session of the Board.

“The Board attempted to tamp down on criticism by changing the format and time for public comment, thereby making it very inconvenient for those from out of town to attend the sessions and participate. Now, that those moves have failed to quell participation in any meaningful way, they have decided to block the public and press from the sessions altogether,” Goldsmith said.

“Additionally, the proposal before the Board today, to attempt to coerce dissenting Trustees from speaking on their own personal views of Board actions, further attempts to insulate the Board from accountability,” he added.

“A University can only be strong if it operates with transparency and is truly open to all voices, even those that disagree. Only when a governing body’s decisions are counter to their mission, do they seek to operate under a veil of secrecy.”

Goldsmith explained that he had planned to speak about the proposed board “Expectations of Membership” revisions*, but when he heard public comment would be closed to the public, not livestreamed on the web, and not posted on the web afterward for public review, he changed his topic.

He outlined the history of public comment, from when the trustees first began allowing it in 2012 in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and the Paterno firing. At first, public comment was heard before the trustees’ voting meeting. Then it was moved to a time slot after votes were taken, so the public was commenting on issues that had already been decided.

“Now, by closing the livestream and recording, no one, including the press, can hear dissenting voices,” he said. “They’re attempting to quiet voices of dissent. They don’t realize it will make dissent grow. A University governing board should encourage dissent. This shows weakness, not strength.”

Anthony Lubrano, a trustee with a solid public record of dissent, walked past, then turned back to speak to two women who had also taken seats in the hall to wait for public comment; one of them was an approved speaker. Lubrano told the women he’d been emailing a number of people about the public comment issues, including Governor Tom Wolf.

Referring to the dissent-suppressing trustees, Lubrano commented: “They’re just tone deaf. They don’t want to hear it.”

By 8 a.m., the woman in the black pantsuit was joined by a guy in a coat and tie, with a leather saddlebag briefcase. Beyond the barricade, the trustees filed out of the glass breakfast room and into the adjoining closed meeting room. Another guy in a suit came out to usher in the three authorized public commenters, and they disappeared through the doors.

A few minutes later Leslie Demmert (Class of 1971) walked up to the barricades and told the woman in the black pantsuit she was there to attend the public comment session. Demmert was informed the session was closed to the public. She expressed surprise.

When interviewed, Demmert said she’s been following Penn State governance, accountability and transparency issues since the Sandusky scandal broke, and especially since the Paterno firing. Since then, she’s either attended public comment sessions and board meetings in person, or watched them online.

Demmert said she understands having people sign up to speak, asking them to stay on topic, and other meeting management tools: “But I also thought that the public could listen to the comments, because that’s where the transparency comes in.”

At about 8:15, Penn State President Eric Barron walked past the barricades to go into the meeting.

A few minutes later, the usher released the three authorized public commenters.


* [UPDATED 3:00 p.m. Nov. 4]

Trustees tabled an amendment to the bylaws regarding “Expectations of Membership,” apparently by unanimous vote, postponing further discussion to their February 2017 meeting.

The proposed revisions were scheduled to be discussed and voted on this afternoon during a presentation by the Committee on Governance and Long-Range Planning. The amendment text is highlighted in red in the online agenda packet, sections five and eleven screenshots below.

“Expectations of Membership. In exercising the responsibilities of trusteeship, the Board of Trustees is guided by the expectations of membership, each of which is equally important. It is expected that each Trustee will:”

section-5

section-11


Every day, throughout Centre County and across the country, municipal supervisors and council members, planning commission and zoning board members, school board members and county commissioners, hold public meetings including public comment sessions. They sometimes impose time limits (usually four or five minutes per person) but they don’t pre-screen speakers to determine worthiness to speak or to bar comments on certain topics. They don’t shut the press out of the sessions.

As a result, these elected and appointed politicians – along with the public – hear a wide variety of comments, from gratitude to criticism to rambling incoherence.

And somehow, their egos survive intact, meeting after meeting, and they are able to get on with their public work and their private lives.

Why is an apparent majority of the Penn State trustees too frail to handle robust public criticism and receive information from beyond their preferred groupthink channels?

What makes these man-babies and woman-babies think they’re entitled to perform their public service while swaddled in a protective blankie?

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