State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Searching for "magic number" for college boards

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 4, 2013 9:55 PM
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When it comes to the governing boards at Pennsylvania’s four state-supported universities, state senators are still circling around the question: does size matter?

In recent days, lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee tested the idea of making state-related universities – Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln – shrink their governing boards by asking university presidents themselves.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the presidents didn’t jump to voice support for getting by with fewer trustees.

So Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) put the question to Pennsylvania’s education secretary during a Monday budget hearing.

“I mean, if you’re not going to make full-time employees out of them – which, no one’s arguing you should – where’s our magic number as far as how you still have the ability to provide that proper oversight?” said Corman.

Secretary Ron Tomalis, himself on the boards of the four state-related schools, said he thinks there is no magic number. But academic governance experts suggest boards should include no more than 20 members. Each of the state-related universities’ boards has between 30 and 40.

Tomalis offered reasons why the boards might be bloated.

“Some people are asked to be on a board to lend their name and fundraising prowess, which is not a problem,” said Tomalis. He suggested board members with too little time or desire to be active members posed a problem. Such a situation is also common among other nonprofit organizations, he said.

“You have large organizations that people who have full time jobs outside of that situation only show up three, four times a year and they’re given a very truncated schedule and they don’t have the time to be engaged,” said Tomalis.

His point was similar to the argument made recently by the head of the University of Pittsburgh. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg told the Senate appropriations panel last week that paring down governing boards isn’t the way to increase oversight.

The issue of board size was raised in a report last year on the Penn State board’s inadequate oversight during the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case. In it, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner suggested all the state-related universities had boards too large to be effective.

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