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Penn State trustee scolded for making ‘spectacle’ in push to name football field after Joe Paterno

Board leadership suggested in a letter to Trustee Anthony Lubrano that the proposal should have been deliberated during a private executive session — a move that would likely have been inconsistent with Pennsylvania’s open meetings law.

  • Wyatt Massey/SpotlightPA
People walk across Old Main lawn on the Penn State campus.

 Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times

People walk across Old Main lawn on the Penn State campus.

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. 

Leaders of Penn State’s Board of Trustees recently admonished fellow Trustee Anthony Lubrano for creating a “public spectacle” and sharing “confidential information” related to his proposal to name the university’s football field after Joe Paterno.

Board chair Matthew Schuyler and vice chair David Kleppinger suggested Lubrano should have instead raised the matter for discussion and deliberation during a private executive session — an action that likely would have run afoul of the state’s open meetings law.

“You chose not to take that opportunity,” Schuyler and Kleppinger wrote in the March 28 letter, first reported by WJAC. “Your public statement and withdrawn proposal were not only a distraction from the business and academic matters on the Board’s agenda for the February 16th meeting, they reflected poorly on the Board as a whole and therefore were not in the best interest of the institution.”

The exchange again raises concerns about whether the Board of Trustees properly follows Pennsylvania’s open meetings law in conducting its business. Under state law, executive sessions can only be held to discuss pending or current litigation, legal investigations, academic standings, and employment or property negotiations.

Melissa Melewsky — media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA is a member — said the letter “illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding and potential misuse of executive sessions.”

“An issue like what to name the football [field] is not an executive session subject matter and should not be discussed anywhere other than a public meeting,” Melewsky said. “The Sunshine Act is a public access law, and the exceptions are narrowly written and should be narrowly applied.”

Lubrano, an alumni-elected trustee, said in an interview with Spotlight PA that Penn State officials wanted to silence any public discussion of the former football coach. Now board leaders are trying to control his behavior, he said.

“They think that it’s in the best interest of the university for there never to be any public dissent,” Lubrano said.

A Penn State spokesperson said via email that the university could not respond to questions from Spotlight PA because of an ongoing lawsuit between the newsroom and the university over alleged violations of the open meetings law by the Board of Trustees.

The board “stands firm in its commitment to openness and transparency as required by the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act,” the spokesperson wrote.

‘Paterno Field’ controversy

Joe Paterno was Penn State’s head football coach for 45 years and won two national championships. The board fired him in November 2011 during the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Joe Paterno died in January 2012.

In June 2012, Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse and sentenced to up to 60 years in prison. Several top university officials were later convicted of misdemeanor child endangerment. Joe Paterno was never charged.

The trustees held two private meetings in January — a Jan. 16 “briefing” and a Jan. 29 “executive session” — to discuss the idea of naming the football field after Paterno.

At the board’s public February meeting, Lubrano proposed “Paterno Field at Beaver Stadium” and a day to honor the longtime coach and his wife, Sue. Lubrano rescinded the resolution following a statement by fellow trustee and Paterno’s son, Joseph “Jay” Paterno Jr.

In March, Lubrano told 98.7 FM that the board’s private meetings in January included former Penn State general counsel Frank Guadagnino, President Neeli Bendapudi, and members of the president’s team. Penn State leaders expressed concern that naming the football field after Paterno would jeopardize the university’s accreditation and corporate sponsorships.

In their letter, Schuyler and Kleppinger said Lubrano shared “confidential information” during the radio appearance and a Feb. 16 interview with WJAC.

According to the board’s governing documents, Penn State defines “confidential information” as any information about the university that is not public. For example, the board marked its 2022 trustee retreat schedule as confidential, according to records obtained by Spotlight PA.

The Sunshine Act does not require that conversations held in executive sessions remain confidential, Melewsky told Spotlight PA. In fact, a director or board member may have a duty to speak openly if they feel the executive session rules are being improperly applied to thwart public disclosure, she added.

The letter also accused Lubrano of bypassing the board’s typical proposal process, which he said was untrue. He told Spotlight PA the board does not privately deliberate on other honorifics, such as its February vote to name the chemistry building the “Benkovic Building.” Lubrano said he worked with other trustees on the proposal in the fall and board leadership knew he planned to present it in February.

“They were absolutely in the know every step of the way. And that’s what’s disheartening to me,” he said in the interview with Spotlight PA.

Spotlight PA, in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sued the trustees in December for alleged violations of the Sunshine Act. The suit — which was amended to include additional alleged violations following the February board meeting — argues the trustees illegally conducted public business in private. The newsroom has documented a decadelong pattern of the board convening behind closed doors.

Penn State, in a filing last month, said Spotlight PA’s lawsuit included “unsupported, vague allegations and bald conclusions of law.” The university maintains that it follows the law.

The case is ongoing in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas.

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