My plan for ethics and accountability

Published January 9, 2012

Last week I told you about my road map for transparency to help restore Penn State’s reputation. Since then, I’m sad to report that we’ve only seen more of the same from the Board of Trustees.

But we can’t let their determination to defend the status quo keep us from working toward making the university more open and honest. That’s why I’m proud to tell you about about my plan to reduce conflicts of interest, avoid entrenched trustees and implement basic standards to prevent unethical conduct throughout Penn State.

First, my proposal would set term limits for members of the board. Some board members have served for nearly 15 years, resulting in the same people reinforcing the same culture over and over again. Instead, trustees should serve no more than two consecutive three-year terms before stepping aside in favor of fresh ideas and new values.

My plan would also require trustees, the president, vice presidents and other major department heads to file annual financial statements that would publicly reveal their income and business activities from outside Penn State. Such disclosures would allow the public to decide where officials’ loyalties lie, and are typically required of most public servants in positions to skew decisions in their personal favor.

Finally, stronger and more specific university ethics regulations are needed. Penn State’s vague policies about ethical conduct are inadequate in a society where business, fundraising and personal participation often cross paths. The Board of Trustees must adopt guidelines that prohibit specific employee actions, like Pennsylvania’s ethics laws have done for years.

My initiatives would have revealed the high-paying jobs that some board members were rewarded with. Three trustees – Steve Garban, Linda Strumpf and H. Jessee Arnelle – have ties to a Boston-based mutual fund, which paid them six-figure salaries for years. And we would have known sooner that the university’s former president made nearly $200,000 from a company headed by Vice Chairman John Surma.

Trustees shouldn’t be banned from having lucrative positions. But when casual networking turns into highly profitable cronyism, true motivations can’t be trusted without fully disclosing the outside influences that lurk nearby.

This plan is the bare minimum of what’s needed to restore integrity to the Board of Trustees. But no rule can ever be effective without leaders who believe in the values that rules are meant to uphold. Without new members, trustees will continue to value insularity over the ethical conduct that we demand.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to end the era of secrecy that has tarnished Penn State’s image and embarrassed its family. If elected, I pledge to be your voice and fight for the principles that will restore honor to Penn State.