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Concerns for Governance at Penn State

In the headrush of public opinion weighing down on them, the National Collegiate Athletic Association acted in an extraordinarily fast and highly unusual manner to levy some of the most significant sanctions in the organization’s history.

The NCAA Penn State consent decree, signed under duress by President Rodney Erickson, states that the university must adopt all of the recommendations that were presented in Chapter 10 of the Freeh Report…  These recommendations (there are more than a hundred) are extremely detailed and specific to Penn State. Not even Louis Freeh thought that was how this document should be used (‘The following recommendations are intended to assist [the University] in improving how they govern’, Chapter 10).

Unfortunately, it seems safe to assume that neither the NCAA nor President Erickson really considered the full implications of that binding stipulation alone, let alone the numerous other collective admissions of guilt strewn throughout the document.

Let’s get one thing straight here: The apparent cover-up of accusations against Jerry Sandusky was a conspiracy that involved at least four men, with many more people also seemingly culpable… Cynthia Baldwin, Jack Raykovitz, and John Seascock are just a few of the people whose roles still seem inexplicable despite it being nearly a year since this scandal began. Yet somehow the NCAA found it in themselves to punish the student-athletes through scholarship reductions, the students through a loss of morale, and the community through the very real economic implications of a stunted football program. Not even waiting for the trials of Gary Schultz and Tim Curley to be over and prior to the actual sentencing of Jerry Sandusky, the NCAA levied enormous damage on truly innocent bystanders without even specifying any actual violations against Penn State!

The Board of Trustees will hold its first public meeting on the consent decree this Sunday evening. The decision to ratify the document may seem rote at this point, but on the contrary, the meeting could have huge ramifications.

If you haven’t read Don Van Natta Jr’s tick-tock account of the secret negotiations between the NCAA and President Erickson, you should take a few minutes to do so now.

Why did President Erickson operate in such a clandestine manner? Van Natta tells us that Peetz and the executive committee of the Board of Trustees were worried about a leak, but that is no reason to drop operating protocol. A nine-page document with such long-term impacts on the university, dependent on an unprecedented self-analysis conducted by a former FBI agent with a gift for narrative embellishment, seems to deserve the fullest possible deliberation by the people elected and nominated to run the university. No one on the outside can be sure how the decision was made — whether Erickson or Peetz or Gene Marsh was the one to push for not discussing this extraordinary measure with the full Board of Trustees in any capacity — but no matter its origins the shady nature of the whole ordeal has raised the same concerns of governance that have underpinned the Penn State aspects of this Jerry Sandusky scandal since the very beginning.

Simply put, the pattern of making decisions through the select cabal composed of Erickson, Edelman (here are their talking points), LaTorre, counsel, and the Executive Committee must end immediately. The kowtowing we saw to the NCAA, an organization that deserves none, caused extraordinary damage to a university already suffering. The cabal’s choice to exclude a significant number of trustees from the decision-making process has alienated earnest alumni representatives like Joel Myers and Ryan McCombie. Know that this upcoming session to “ratify” the consent decree was not long in the works… Even the board leadership’s choice to hold the meeting in the ether reveals the cabal’s motivating desire to minimize dissent around their controversial actions. In a legal gray area as to whether the Internet constitutes a place enough for Sunshine Law purposes, the ambiguity and meandering aurality of a conference call will wash out the emotions that might otherwise surface at a meeting broadcast in living color.

If you know someone on the Board of Trustees, send them this column. Let them know that their work on behalf of Penn State is appreciated. Tell them that you think it’s time President Erickson took the training wheels off, and let them conduct their business in the open, slow-moving and messy as the process might be. Until we fix our culture of secrecy, Penn State will be stuck in a rut dug deep by many years of lackadaisical oversight. Tell them to recall the Solomonic words of Louis Brandeis (“sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”) and push for a more open Penn State.

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