Candidates for Penn State Board of Trustee Elections: Town Hall Discussion, April 2021

A “Town Hall” panel was held on April 8th, 2021, featuring the six candidates on the ballot for Penn State University Board of Trustee Alumni Elections. The Town Hall, held via ZOOM session, was put together by PS4RS – and is available at the link below.

Link to the video of the Town Hall:
https://www.facebook.com/PS4RS/videos/451371632620785

The discussion lasted just under 1 3/4 hours. It is strongly recommended that Penn State Alumni watch the discussions before casting their ballots in the ongoing election.

Election information, including a link for Alumni to procure a ballot, can be found at: Alumni Trustees | Office of the Board of Trustees (psu.edu)

The candidates participating in the discussion are:
James Bognet
Alvin DeLevie
Bridget Lasda
Brandon Short
Laurie Stanell

Steve Wagman


The format of the meeting, which allowed only for relative brief answers to numerous questions, makes it difficult for candidates to engage in deep-dive topical discussions. But, even in the brief times allotted, there were some very enlightening and informative snippets.

Particularly for those who may not have the time to watch the entire video, I will provide some commentary regarding the meeting – and impressions of the individual candidates – and I will highlight some of the key exchanges:

Some of the highlights:

WHEN THINGS “GOT REAL”:

Amidst the “fluff” that typically pervades Town Hall discussions, there were some moments when things “got real”, and candidates appeared to talk from their heart as opposed to their pre-scripted answers to the standard questions, and it is those moments that tend to be the most informative.
Many of those moments, unfortunately, happened late in the program (when many may have already tuned out), but I will highlight some of them here:

Overwhelmingly, the most “real” candidate was Jim Bognet.

Jim Bognet was the only candidate who broke from the herd and openly – and with much substantiation – criticized current University leadership. This showed up in several areas, including his critiques of Penn State leadership’s COVID response – which he said was largely driven by fear-mongering, and displayed a lack of meaningful and forward-thinking action and effort on the part of University leadership.

Bognet also made it clear that he thought PSU leadership has consistently failed to address wasteful spending and excessive Administrative costs and bloat – specifically calling out Sandy Barbour’s $10 million contract as unconscionable… stating that she wasn’t even a good Athletic Director, at any price… and James Franklin’s $40 million contract extension, as particularly egregious acts of excessive spending.

Bognet also appeared to speak from the heart in response to comments made by some of the other candidates.
After both Steve Wagman and Brandon Short provided what can only be described as “bewildering” justifications for some of Penn State’s most egregious spending, Bognet called them both out – including rebuking Wagman’s explanation that it made sense to spend $50 million to renovate the football building because, according to Wagman, “The money was just laying in the bank, and it wasn’t doing any good there”, Bognet told Wagman “You know what good it could be used for? Cutting tuition costs!”

Bognet also called out Short’s head-scratching claim that his (Short’s) greatest accomplishment in his three years on the Board was adding another $1 Billion of debt to the University’s balance sheet last year. Short trumpeted this move – which, FWIW, was designed and implemented by former Penn State Vice-President of Finance David Gray ** – because interest rates were low (as they have been for the last 10 years). Bognet did not seem to feel that taking on another $1 Billion of debt was necessarily an accomplishment of great value.

Bognet also pointed out, after Short delivered a rather emotional soliloquy regarding how much the Paterno family wanted him to be on the Board, that “The Paternos have not endorsed any of the candidates – and that says a lot, especially in light of previous events”. That comment may have been in reference to the fact that Sue Paterno DID endorse Short three years ago – but not this year. And possibly alluding to rumors of a rift between Short and some members of the Paterno family.

In another bit of “realness”, Short seemed to get agitated with any critiques of his fiscal opinions. He seemed to become very condescending and pretentious, including stating that “Finance is what I do!”, and trying to present a resume of a “Wall Street Guy”. Short seemed intent on introducing financial buzzwords – even though they would be terms and concepts familiar to first-semester finance students, students who would, hopefully, be better able to apply them to the issues at hand – with an assumption that he would be “talking over” his colleagues.

The meeting, as election campaign discussions are prone to do, had a lot of pandering and posturing.

Nearly all of the candidates spent considerable time wrapping themselves in the “Shroud of Joe Paterno” – not an unexpected occurrence, given the demographics of the electorate – many of whom have deep emotional ties to Penn State’s legendary football coach.

Perhaps no one pandered to that memory more than Brandon Short – who relayed his claim that in his final days, Joe Paterno privately told him that he was going to make sure he (Short) would get on the Penn State Board. Alvin DeLevie, James Bognet, and Laurie Stanell all joined in baptizing themselves in the Paterno font on several occasions. Steve Wagman was the one candidate who seemed to – mostly – try to distance himself from any positive references of the former football coach.

BEWILDERING STATEMENTS and “TRUTHINESS” ISSUES:

While there was not an overabundance of fact-based discussion, on a few occasions those “facts” took on some bizarre twists.

Questionable Truthiness – State Funding:
Laurie Stanell stated that Penn State was the most under-funded public University in the country (it is not, not by a long-shot). In fact, even among Big Ten Universities (which are among the most heavily funded in the nation) PSU’s funding from the state of Pennsylvania – on a per-student basis and on a total dollar basis – is relatively “in the middle” among its Big Ten peers. And FAR higher than the vast majority of public universities in the nation.
And PSU’s funding is well above average, one of the highest in the nation, when one includes the $1 Billion+ of GSA funding Penn State receives from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – money used to underwrite Capital Construction projects, not tuition expenses. And FAR higher than the vast majority of public universities in the nation.

Bewildering Propositions – Board Size:
In response to a question regarding the massive size of Penn State’s Board of Trustees (38 members, more than three times the size of other Big Ten public university Boards), A board that has often been criticized as being cumbersome, disengaged, and ineffective – claims with a long history of support.
Steve Wagman stated that it was critical to have such a large Board because so many people were needed to deal with the size ($7 Billion per year budget) and complexity of Penn State’s operations.

Wagman’s comments largely echo the justifications put forth by “Old Guard” Board members when they expanded the size of the Board to mitigate any influence that the 9-member contingent of Alumni-Elected trustees might have. What Wagman may not be aware of is that institutions many times the size, and with far greater diversification, have far smaller boards – and function much more efficiently with smaller, engaged boards.

Not only do Penn State’s peer institutions, nearly all of which are surpassing Penn State, or gaining on Penn State in all key academic metrics, function far better with smaller, more engaged boards. And APPLE computer – the largest business entity in the history of the World, with annual revenues of over $2,000 Billion, and operations in every continent, operating in the most rapidly changing technological markets of all time – functions, brilliantly, with an 8 member board.

Questionable Truthiness AND Bewildering Propositions – Penn State’s Fiscal Situation:

In response to a question about important characteristics to look for in the next Penn State President, Brandon Short veered off into a discussion wherein he stated that:
“The most important issue wrt the University’s finances is the size of our endowment”
Short emphatically stated that the size of Penn State’s endowment was an overwhelming reason for Penn State’s rapidly eroding ranking among public Universities (Short cited the USNews ranking which placed PSU at 63rd in the nation). Short cited the size of the endowment at University of Michigan (approximately $13 Billion, the largest among Big Ten Universities) as an example of what Penn State was “up against”. And that if Penn State had a more competitive endowment, it wouldn’t be falling behind 60 other public universities.

What Short seemed to be unaware of was… well, he seemed to be unaware of a lot on this topic… but the primary thing he seemed to be unaware of is that Penn State, as one of the nations oldest, and largest universities – with an enormous alumni base – has the 10th largest endowment of any public university in the nation (just under $4 Billion). A larger endowment than 9 of its Big Ten peers, and larger than nearly all of the 62 public universities ranked ahead of Penn State. If “endowment size” was such a huge strategic advantage, as Short claimed, Penn State would be soaring ahead of most of those universities, not falling behind. Was Short being intentionally disingenuous, or was he just unaware of the facts? Only he could answer that question.

But, there’s more.

In his discussion, Short stated that a larger endowment could be used to subsidize and reduce tuition costs. Short may have forgotten that he, and the rest of his Board colleagues, have repeatedly stated – in response to pleas to increase utilization of the endowment funds to reduce tuition costs – that:
“Endowment funds cannot be used to reduce tuition. They are designated for other purposes and cannot be touched” (a statement which has always possessed a grain of truth, and a lot of “untruth”). So, which is it?

Short, who also sits on the Board Finance Committee (a fact which he brought up several times throughout the night) was on the committee which approved the payment of $75 million FROM the endowment to compensate outside Investment Advisors to the endowment. Those dollars, dollars that could have been used to support any number of Penn State’s missions, are now erased forever – and only stuffing the bank accounts of select “Wall Street” advisors (the names of which have been designated as “confidential” by the Penn State Board). Those fees are not only obscenely large (historically, fees paid from the Penn State endowment to outside investment advisors had averaged $10-15 million per year) but are also more than double the maximum permitted under the University’s own Investment Management guidelines (which, apparantly, the members of the Committee chose to ignore).

Town Hall, In Summary:

In all, the Town Hall was a worthwhile tool, and those who made the efforts to bring the discussions “to the people” are to be commended. Such discussions always tend to leave the observer hoping for more – and hoping for more substance – but time constraints involved in trying to cover the entire breadth of University governance issues, spread among 6 candidates, presents a difficult challenge.

In order to make the most of such events, it behooves the viewer to:
A) Observe the discussions with very critical eyes and ears, to separate fluff and pandering from true governance issues and meaningful propositions
and
B) Do a little homework, to see if some of the claims and propositions make sense – and are congruent with the facts, and with the track records of the trustees themselves.

The Penn State Board of Trustees operates in near complete darkness, a shortcoming magnified by the fact that very few of the Trustees expend much effort with regard to informing, or carrying on an meaningful communications with, the Alumni – so every chance to see them and gauge their capabilities, their knowledge, and their virtue is worth a viewing.

 

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