My 2022 Penn State trustee report card

Barry Fenchak trustee report card

Trustee accountability starts with me.

2022 is over, grades have been posted, and we can enjoy the winter break. After six months as an alumni-elected Penn State trustee, I can honestly say I’ve earned it. 

Since the election last May, I’ve been overwhelmed by alumni appreciation for my visibility and openness. The comment I’ve heard most often: “They all promise to do this and we never hear from them again until they are up for re-election”. I can’t (and won’t) speak for my fellow trustees, but please know that I want to be held accountable for my votes and efforts. In that spirit, I’ll give myself a report card.

During the Spring 2022 elections, when I asked for your vote and support, I made three promises.

  1. I will vote NO to any proposal that is not in the best interests of the University, which means I will vote NO quite often. And I won’t be afraid to be the lone No vote if I think the proposal is not congruent with responsible governance.
    1. There has been one vote for tuition increase and I voted NO (see Anatomy of a University Tuition Increase)  Five other alumni elected Trustees joined me in voting No.
    Grade: A
  2. Before I vote NO, I will work to educate the other Trustees on better options.
    1. Penn State’s construction projects are a primary cause of Penn State’s exploding debt. I voted NO on the construction of the new Liberal Arts building because I view the costs as significantly out of line. I also voted NO for latest dormitory renovation projects, which appear far more expensive than similar projects completed by our Big Ten cohorts. While I shared my analysis in great detail with my colleagues on the Board, I was, unfortunately, the only Trustee to speak out and reject those projects and the only Trustee who asked that those projects be taken back to the drawing board to determine where costs could be brought in line.
    2. I was also the only Trustee to vote NO on the 2022-23 operating budget.  It appeared to me my fellow trustees were surprised to learn that the University operated at a $120+ million dollar deficit last year, which was then given as a reason for raising tuition. I made it clear that I felt it was time to rein in costs, reduce waste, and re-prioritize Penn State’s spending rather than continue to operate inefficiently and rely solely on tuition increases to finance that largess. Instead, I was the only Trustee to vote against the budget – a budget which increases Penn State’s operating deficit, despite a $130 million increase in tuition charges.
    Grade: A
  3. I will put forth my own list of proposals, developed through years of observation and analysis:
    1. Proper management of the Penn State endowment, with sufficient savings to reduce tuition costs by at least 10%.
      1. Last year, Penn State announced the completion of a fundraising campaign, claiming over $2 billion in new donations, while positing the inability to make meaningful progress towards addressing affordability.  As the next campaign begins, we need to emphasize increased accountability and greater focus on fundraising that will address affordability.  I will continue to advocate for those causes, as I did when I voted NO for the re-appointment of current members of the investment council.
      2. Budgetary control that will yield sufficient savings to reduce tuition by at least 5% per year.
        1. As I proposed prior to voting against this year’s operating budget, it is critical that every dollar we spend be spent efficiently, and that our spending is used to further Penn State’s critical missions.  We can easily meet the goals of tuition reduction if we properly align our priorities.
      3. Recognize Penn State’s academic decline and support the faculty as they work to restore its prominence.
        1. Penn State continued its decline again this year in several key academic metrics.  If we are to turn that around, we must recognize our shortcomings. We must take responsibility for them and take actions, both administratively and financially, to improve the quality of our incoming students and retain and grow our roster of top-notch faculty and staff.  One of the key resources at our disposal, as I outlined at September’s Board meeting, is to use our budgeted financial aid and scholarship spending to achieve these goals.
    Grade: B+. There’s a lot more work to be done.In-person attendance: 100%

There are many who may feel that a single dissenting voice makes no difference, and I am heartened when I am joined by other trustees who are trying to raise expectations for responsible governance. I also bring your voice, the thousands of alumni, faculty, staff, students, and others supporters of responsible governance, to the Board. And now they have to listen when we vote NO.

This Spring we will be voting for three alumni-elected trustees. Some of the candidates will have a track record to defend and others will be new. I urge you to reach out to them and ask the same questions you ask me. And above all, hold them accountable. When I hear from you via eMail, phone calls, or meeting in person my determination is strengthened, and our mission made clear. Please do not hesitate to reach out.

Note: As a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, I will from time to time be made aware of certain confidential information.  I will also engage with Trustees and administrators in private, off-the-record conversations, with the expectation of privacy on both parties. I take these expectations seriously, as they are required in order to catalyze important discussions. As a fiduciary, it is also important that I engage in conversations with all stakeholders of the University. Stakeholders like you.  Discussions will involve publicly available information and issues before the Board, as well as my personal thoughts, concerns, and ideas. I also will continue to solicit your thoughts, concerns, and ideas, and plan to engage in meaningful conversations with you on those topics. I hope that you will continue to share your concerns and ideas with me.

(This post was also posted on my SubStack.com home page, https://barryfenchak.substack.com/)

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