Pa. lawmakers want greater openness from Penn State and others

Neil D. Theobald will become president of Temple University on Jan. 1.
Neil D. Theobald will become president of Temple University on Jan. 1. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: August 21, 2012

When a newspaper in March 2011 first exposed a grand jury investigation into a child sexual-abuse scandal involving Pennsylvania State University, a lone member of the school's board of trustees e-mailed then-president Graham B. Spanier demanding answers.

The trustee's effort to get information was revealed in a scathing report on the scandal by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

But the trustee's identity was not disclosed.

Penn State subsequently declined a request from The Inquirer to provide the trustee's name.

It's just one example of the kind of information Penn State and the three other "state-related universities" is not required to reveal because they are not fully subject to Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law.

But state lawmakers are preparing to make changes in the law that will at the very least demand a greater measure of transparency from Penn State, Temple, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln. The changes are being pushed in the aftermath of the abuse scandal but also as state support for higher-education funding is waning.

Though some lawmakers say they hope to take up the issue in the fall, others say it's more likely to be pushed into early next year, given the short span of legislative days left in this calendar year.

"There's no doubt that changes are going to be made," said State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), majority chair of the House Education Committee. "I don't have a good feel as to when it's all going to occur."

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester and Montgomery), minority chairman of the Senate Education Committee, agreed.

"Our state-relateds are taking millions of dollars, and they have the responsibility to be subject to Right to Know just like anybody else who takes state money," he said. "If you don't want to be totally transparent, then don't take state money."

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic F. Pileggi, said the issue was scheduled to be taken up in the fall.

Legislators, he said, seem poised to bring the police departments at the state-related universities fully under the Open Records Law.

"The police at Pitt, Temple, and Penn State have arrest powers just like municipal police and state police," Arneson said. "Therefore, we believe they should be subject to the law in the same way as every other police department in the state."

There also is widespread support to require all the universities to fully account for the state tax money they receive, Arneson said.

"Some people think we should do more than that," Arneson said. "Nobody I've heard from thinks we should do less than that."

For 2012-13, Penn State is receiving about $227 million, Temple about $140 million, and Pitt about $136 million.

Dinniman, for example, thinks that state aid should be used only for academics.

He also said that perhaps other institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, which receives state funding, should be considered for placement under the law.

At one extreme, the legislature could decide to put the state-related universities fully under the law, similar to the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

But some say that's not really fair, given that the state money account for a relatively small portion of the budgets of state-related universities. Would it suddenly mean that every museum or other private agency that gets a state grant has to fully open their records to public scrutiny?

Penn State's allotment, for example, represents about 5.2 percent of its $4.3 billion budget.

The state-related universities currently are only required to release information - such as top salaries - that is made public on IRS 990 forms.

Penn State's assistant general counsel, Amy Elizabeth McCall, cited that requirement when denying The Inquirer's request for the trustee's name.

"Because the information you requested would not be found on an IRS 990 report, Penn State will not be forwarding it at this time," she wrote in a July 27 letter.

Clymer said that "on first blush," it sounds as though Penn State should release the trustee's name if it allows for better understanding of how the scandal unfolded.

He also said the public had the right to know whether former Temple president Ann Weaver Hart continues to draw a salary from the school. She was approved for a sabbatical this year but then accepted another job at the University of Arizona.

Temple has declined to say whether she still draws a salary.

But Temple in recent days has been forthcoming with other information it wouldn't have to release under Right to Know. Board chairman Patrick O'Connor earlier this month released the salary of incoming president Neil D. Theobald. The senior vice president and chief financial officer of Indiana University will be paid $450,000 a year when he takes the helm Jan. 1.

Arneson said nothing was stopping the universities from releasing more information, and Temple provides a prime example of what can be done.

"Just because something isn't required to be released doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be released," he said.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis said more transparency should be required of state-related universities.

"The secretary believes that the Right to Know Law should be expanded to include additional areas within state-related universities; however, he does recognize that the universities have concerns regarding security measures and the research that they conduct," Tim Eller, Tomalis' spokesman, said.

Clymer said he would like to hear from the universities before making changes.

"My concern is we do it in a way that's civil and achieves the purpose we want to achieve," he said. "We don't want to do an overkill and punish universities because of what happened at Penn State."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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