Candidates for Penn State Board of Trustee Elections, Part 2: Town Hall Play by Play, April 2021

What follows is a “Play by Play” Recap of the PSU Alumni -Elected Trustees Candidates Town Hall.

Think of it as the opportunity to watch a football game – but edited down to eliminate the commercials and time outs.

The Town Hall 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 Town Hall started off with a few “around the horn” questions, where each candidate had two minutes to respond the the same question:

“Around the Horn” Question #1:

“What are your Top Three Priorities as a candidate for the Penn State Board of Trustees?” (3:30 mark to the 18:30 mark in the video):

Many candidates mention similar priorities – complete list below:

Stanell:
Tuition Affordability, Diversity Equity and Inclusion
Wagman
:
Tuition Affordability, Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Upgrading Facilities
Short
:
Tuition Affordability, Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Overcoming COVID
Bognet
:
Tuition Affordability, Restoring Paterno Legacy, Opening PSU to In-Person Instruction
Lasda
:
Tuition Affordability, Innovation post-COVID, Selection of the next PSU President
DeLevie
:
Selection of the next PSU President, Restoring Paterno Legacy

Of note:
While championing “affordability”, Short, on several occasions, mentions the need for Penn State to spend more. How “spending more”, which must be paid for with student tuition dollars, enhances affordability? That question would appear to go unanswered. Otherwise, the “two minutes to answer” format made it difficult for any candidate to put forward anything other than “fluff” responses.

“Around the Horn” Question #2:

“Do you support mandatory COVID vaccines for students?” (18:30 mark to the 32:20 mark)

Bognet: Definitely not

Lasda: PSU should work with government agencies

Short
: Not mandated, but recommended

Stanell
: No, does not support making vaccines mandatory.

DeLevie
: Encouraged, but not mandated.  Made a point that Beaver Stadium (and other athletic venues) should be opened up to fans.

Wagman
: Compared COVID shots to required vaccines for meningitis etc,

Note: Meningitis vaccines are NOT required for all PSU students – only for those who choose to live in dormitories, and even then, without any 100% required compliance.
Wagman’s reference to “meningitis vaccines”, though somewhat incorrect in his understanding of them – would seem to indicate a willingness on Wagman’s part to mandate COVID vaccines, though he didn’t say so explicitly.

Also of note: Bognet opened his response with criticisms of Penn State Leadership’s response to COVID.  The only candidate to offer up any such assessment.

“Around the Horn” Question #3:

“What are the most important traits you would look for in the next PSU President?  And, do you have have any idea with regard to potential candidates who might fit the bill?” (32:30 mark to the 46:30 mark)

Short: 
Vision for the Future and the ability to Raise Endowment Funds
Short then stated that “The most important issue wrt the University’s finances is the size of our endowment”

Stanell:
Need to start running things more like a business, and the President has to know business  Run it like a hybrid of Business/Academia.

Wagman:
“I’ll echo Brandon (Short):  vision and implementing vision”
Wagman also stated that he felt “southern schools” recruited higher income students from Pennsylvania because of the nicer weather and lower costs.
He also asserted that PSU is in strong financial position, and needs to invest (spend?) more

Lasda:.
Lasda started out by injecting a few currently popular corporate terms – like “Transformational Leadership” and “Communicator”, and went on to state a desire for someone experienced in business, academia, and government.

Bognet: 
Bognet first noted that, in his opinion, it will be a great joy to be saying goodbye to President Barron, and that Barron is largely to blame for many of the difficulties faced by Penn State in recent years.
Bognet felt that key characteristics would be someone who loves Penn State and respects and will honor Penn State’s legacy, and someone with courage and guts who will stand up to things like “Cancel-Culture”.
Bognet expressed a preference for someone not born and raised in academia, and who will be more fiscally responsible.
Bognet used the opportunity to criticize Penn State leadership’s lack of fiscal responsibility, specifically citing  Sandy Barbour’s $10 Million contract (he noted that, in his opinion, Barbour wasn’t even a good Athletic Director), and the $40 million contract for a football coach (James Franklin), and for the bloated administrative expenses – including large expenditures for “Diversity” administrators.

DeLevie:
Delevie stated the the number one characteristic was someone of Integrity, and someone with the ability to deal with the new landscape of education – and prioritizing “education” above all else.

Of note:
None of the candidates expressed any knowledge of particular Presidential candidates who they felt might “fit the bill”, or provide a template for the type of person PSU should be seeking out for the next President of the University.
That – especially for the incumbent candidates (Wagman, Stanell, and Short) was a bit disconcerting – especially given that so many seemed to feel that the selection of the next President was of vital importance.


“Around the Horn” Questions #4 and #5:
Later in the discussions, two additional “Around the Horn” questions were asked.  For each question the candidates were asked to provide a Yes or No response.   The Questions were similar, so I will combine the responses to both questions (1:10:25 mark to the 1:13:30 mark)

“YES OR NO:  Should the University be honoring Joe Paterno’s legacy at Penn State?”
“YES OR NO:  Should the Board of Trustees repudiate the Freeh Report?”

DeLevie:
JOE PATERNO LEGACY:  “Yes.  What happened to Joe was wrong, it was cancel culture run amok”
REPUDIATE FREEH REPORT: “Yes, I would”

Wagman:
PATERNO:  “Yes.  He took a good state University and helped develop a world-class university”
FREEH:  “No, we need to look forward not backward”

Short:
PATERNO:  Yes.  I love Joe Paterno.  “I will do everything in my power to make sure that he is honored” (FWIW: Short has already been on the Board for three years)
FREEH:  “When the Board settled with Sue Paterno they did it half-heartedly”

Bognet:
PATERNO:  Yes, One Million percent – Joe AND Sue Paterno.  It is long past time the University apologized and honored Sue Paterno.
FREEH:  “Not only should it be repudiated, the report should be burned on Old Main lawn”
“Steve (Wagman) and the current Board member’s view is why we can’t heal Penn State – because we refuse to stand up and do the right thing”

Lasda:
PATERNO:  “When we are ready as a University…. I would be supportive of honoring the Paterno Family’s legacy”
FREEH:  “If we don’t look back at our history, then we cannot look forward.” (I am not sure what that equivocation means, but one might assume she would support “repudiation”, or maybe not.)

[Stanell was no longer part of the panel for these questions, due to scheduling conflicts]


The Town Hall also included some specific questions asked to just one candidate.
The first round of specific questions follows (47:50 mark to the 1:10:10 mark)

Bognet was asked:
“PSU has been dropping, relative to its Big Ten peers, in many measures – including academic standing of its incoming classes. How can PSU turn this around?” 
Bognet Response:
The biggest underlying issues were:  Affordability of Tuition, and restoring of the PSU Brand
The Board needs to make sure that “academic spending” was done more efficiently, and not wasting money on non-academic pursuits.  Also mentioned the need for more merit-based student aid to attract top students.
Penn State needs to re-engage alumni after the events of the last 10 years.

Stanell was asked:
“What does “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion mean to you – and how is that involved in the mindset of a trustee. And is our current climate at PSU hospitable to diversity?”
Stanell Response:
Stated that there are pockets of inhospitable people, and we need to work on that.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion means that everyone should be treated equally – and it is not currently like that at Penn State, but she is working for it.

DeLevie was asked:
“How do we insure that the costs for capital projects – many of which have appeared to be grossly overpriced – are reasonable?”
DeLevie Response:
All investments should prioritize “Education”.  Overspending on “brick and mortar” takes away from what we can do that impacts students.
DeLevie then pivoted to a desire to set up lower tuition rates for out-of-state students who are children of alumni.

Short was asked:
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment of the last three years?”
Short Response:
After stating that he was proud that he has had such a big influence on the University (in his three years on the Board) – Short said that the single thing he was proudest of was “Issuing a bond (taking on debt) for $1 Billion dollars , at a time when interest rates were low” claiming that this “saved” the University an enormous sum of money (his entire contention was disingenuous and self-serving, at best.   See below **)

(** The $1 Billion of borrowing referenced in the response was an action by Penn State to borrow $1 Billion to pay down a portion of its under-funded pension obligations.  For years, Penn State had underfunded the employee pensions – and that obligation was coming due.  Penn State did not have the funds available to pay those obligations, so they borrowed another $1 Billion to pay down part of that obligation.  The total obligation – due to under-funding of the pension over several years – was approximately $1.5 Billion.  The “borrowing plan” was the brainchild of former Penn State VP of Finance David Gray, not Brandon Short or the Board, and was more of a necessity – due to lack of funds – than it was a “plan”).

Stanell was asked:
“Which vote, over the last three years, are you most proud of?”
Stanell Response:
Keeping tuition for in-state students flat, and voting against the expenditures for Football Administration Building renovations.

Short was asked:
“You indicated in your position statement that the PSU community may still not be “together”. What can you do moving forward to bring the PSU community together?”
Short Response:
Felt that many people were heartbroken about the “Sandusky Situation” and the firing of Joe Paterno, and that Penn State must honor Joe Paterno

Stanell was asked:
You indicated in your position statement that you will use your experience in government affairs to promote reform legislation to correct past mistakes. Can you explain?”
Stanell Response:
Said that Penn State was the “least-funded” state school in the country, and she would lobby for more support.  (FWIW: Penn State is far from the “least funded” public University.   VERY far from it.)

Wagman was asked:
“Former governor Wolf asked PSU to not increase the size of the Board, and Auditor General DePasquale stated that the Board should be reduced in size – but in response the Board changed the bylaws to increase in size. Do you agree with the decisions to increase the Board’s size, and what will you prioritize in terms of Governance Reform?

Wagman Response:
No, he does not agree w the Governor or the Auditor General with respect to the size of the Board.
Expressed that PSU is a “$7 Billion Enterprise”, and it would be impossible to run an enterprise of that size without a Board at least the size of Penn State’s (PSU Board currently has 38 members – three times the size of most Big Ten Universities, and nearly five times the size of the largest and most diverse business entity – APPLE – in the history of the World).
Wagman also seemed to repeatedly confuse the issues of “management” – the purview of PSU Administration – and “governance” – the purview of PSU’s Board.

Lasda was asked:
“How would you deal with the conflict for issues when a particular vote might be in the best interests of the University, but wouldn’t be looked upon favorably by Alumni? “
Lasda Response:
We have to put what’s best for the University first.  You can never make every single person happy, but we should listen and communicate with alumni and stakeholders.
If we focus on the missions of Penn State, and communicate that to the stakeholders, we can bridge those issues.

After a brief departure for the “Around the Horn” questions regarding “Paterno” and the “Freeh Report”, we returned to specific questions for individual candidates (1:16:30 mark to the 1:28:15 mark) 

Lasda was asked:
“In your position statement you say “Student Organizations” are important to developing strong students – and fresh solutions are needed.  What “fresh solutions” do you propose? “
Lasda Response:
17% of students are “Greek” and said those in Greek organizations disproportionately give back to the university and feels the current PSU Administration is marginalizing Greek students, and that Greek students should be brought in to work with the administration on student issues.

DeLevie was asked:
You wrote in your position statement that “The importance of our Commonwealth campuses cannot be overstated.  Can you expound?”
DeLevie Response:
Commonwealth campuses improve diversity – because many students can’t afford to go to University Park, but can go to school from home by using a commonwealth campus.
And the commonwealth campuses are economic drivers for the towns they are located in.

Wagman was asked:
“You write that modernization of facilities are a key to the future.  Does this mean that you are in favor of the expenditures for the Lasch Building expansion?”
Wagman
Response:
Yes.  Wagman then talked about the time frame for the project, leading to his conclusion that: By the time we (the Board) took the vote, we had already borrowed the money and “having that money just sitting in the bank wasn’t doing anyone any good”

Note: Why the University would have already borrowed the money – BEFORE the Board (supposedly) approved of the project?   Has it become that obvious that the Board serves as nothing but a perfunctory rubber-stamp for the Administration and a select group of Trustees?  Wagman didn’t say… and, unfortunately, no one asked that critical question.

Bognet was asked:
“In your position statement you wrote “In person instruction must be immediately resumed”.  How would you rate the University’s COVID response, on a scale of 1 to 10?  And, if you were on the Board, what would you have done differently?”
Bognet Response:
On a scale of 1 to 10?  A 3 or 4, at best.
Would have NOT voted back in August of 2020 to suspend the football season.

At this point (the 1:22:50 mark in the video) things “got real” for a while.

At that point, Bognet pivoted to a statement that:
“Steve (Wagman) and Brandon (Short) should be the Candidates of Debt”
Bognet stated, “They (Wagman and Short) keep talking about how PSU should borrow more and more money”.  Bognet stated that we should NOT keep borrowing money.  Used the example of spending $70+ million to renovate the Lasch Building – a building that he felt was already a great facility, and more than capable of providing for and meeting Penn State Football’s needs.
Taking on ever-increasing amounts of debt is NOT a solution, and PSU needed to become much more effective at controlling costs, rather than borrowing more and more money to feed spending – with no plan for how to pay off the debt.
Bognet told Wagman (in reference to Wagman’s comments regarding the Lasch Building) “You know what we can do with that money that is already sitting around in the bank?  Cut Tuition costs!”

That was SUPPOSED to be the final question….. but Christian Marrone allowed Short to interject and respond (Marrone was the moderator of the Town Hall, and – for the sake of transparency – is a former teammate of Short, and alluded to their friendship and private conversations a few times throughout the Town Hall):

Brandon Short responded by projecting his credentials as a “Wall Street Whiz”, and – as patronizingly as possible – stating that “Finance is what I do!”.
Short put forward two minutes of the most confused and incongruent propositions of the night.  Such as:
– “Athletics is self-funding.   And that no matter how much is “invested” (spent) in athletics it wouldn’t effect any other part of the University” (PSU Athletics is not  “self-funding” wrt its debt – which was the issue at hand.  In fact, PSU Athletics has zero legal standing to even issue or assume debt.  ALL PSU Athletics debt is the responsibility of, and backed by, Penn State’s general fund – ie: Tuition Dollars.  It is very disconcerting that a sitting trustee would make such a claim – whether it be out of ignorance, or our of “disingenuousness”)
– “If football collapsed, we would lose other sports” (How the University becoming more fiscally responsible, and controlling their debt burden, would cause “football to collapse”?  Short didn’t say.)
– Short went on to say that with regard to Athletics’ spending “Our return is 100%, because our basis is zero” (Short appeared to not only have some difficulties with finance – and basic financial terminology – but also with basic mathematics.  In fairness, I believe it was about 2 AM in London – Short’s current residence – when the Town Hall was concluding))
– Short also repeated his unsupported claims that spending on athletics helps Penn State’s academic ranking.
In any event, it got kind of “off the rails”

After listening to Short, Bognet simply responded with  ” I trust Jay Paterno’s views, and Anthony Lubrano’s views more than I trust yours”

DeLevie then interjected with comments that he seemed determined to “fit in” to the Town Hall, wherein he expressed that he felt that when Hammond Building is torn down (Hammond is the existing Engineering Building, which is scheduled to be demolished after the new Engineering Campus construction is completed) it should be replaced with an amphitheater, a skating rink, open space, restaurants etc to create a gateway between Town and Gown.

The Town Hall then concluded with each candidate being given one minute for “Final Thoughts” (1:28:00 mark to the 1:39:00 mark)

Lasda:
This is a critical time for Penn State – especially post-covid, and as we search for a new president.
We need fresher perspective and more recency with college experience (ie: “younger” trustees?)

DeLevie:
Claimed that he has been working behind the scenes for years, and has a long history in State College.
I want to build on my family’s Penn State legacy.
Claimed to have the support of current trustees Brandon Short, Anthony Lubrano, Jay Paterno, Alice Pope, Barbara Doran, and Bill Oldsey.

Short:
Invoked a “Joe Paterno Story”, and claimed that in his later days Joe Paterno told him that one day he would put him (Short) on the Board.  Said in 2017 Jay Paterno called to ask him to run, and that he ran for the Board to honor Joe Paterno.

Bognet:
Bognet stated that he wanted to correct the record:  Jay Paterno is not endorsing any of the candidates, and that he felt that spoke volumes given the past history (Apparently alluding to the “history” that Sue Paterno endorsed Short three years ago, but not this year).
Went on to talk about “bleeding blue and white” and how much Penn State meant to him – and he will always keep in mind the people who made Penn State what it is today.

Wagman:
Discussed his history as a Penn State student and how much Penn State means to him.  Recited his experience with the PSU Alumni Association and affiliated groups.

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