Louis Freeh and University Governance

Can some good come out of the Penn State tragedy? Former FBI director Louis Freeh has authored a remarkable, lengthy and brutally frank report that finds fault with lots of people at Penn State. But a group that has heretofore received only modest criticism gets a lot from Freeh—the Board of Trustees. And, reading news reports of the findings, it appears Freeh’s view of the role of boards is very similar to mine, and highly consistent with an idea I have been promoting with increasing frequency for several years.

Freeh said “the Board allowed itself to be marginalized by not demanding thorough and forthright reports on the affairs of the University.” Freeh’s indictment of the Penn State board would apply, I submit, to probably a majority of the governing boards of American universities. While boards can become too activist and disruptive (some would say this is the case at the University of Virginia, but I am not so certain), the far larger problem is that boards are co-opted by the administration which supposedly is subservient to them.  The boards accept the information that the president provides as the sum total (or a very, very large proportion of the total) of what they should know about university affairs.

University presidents typically try to maximize revenues and minimize bad publicity. The two are actually highly interrelated. Hence, if something embarrassing happens on campus, the trustees are typically notified only if they likely would find out anyway, or if the legal ramifications of failure to notify are so huge that there is no real alternative. Thus scandals sometimes erupt, despite efforts at containment, and the trustees are caught off guard.

I remember, a few years ago, receiving a phone call from the chair of my university’s board of trustees, a longtime personal friend. The football coach had been arrested for drunk driving, always embarrassing, but doubly so since the coach was featured on posters deploring the dangers of excessive drinking, and the football team had had several members arrested for drinking-related offenses.  The board chair had not been informed and was called by a reporter to comment. He was, correctly, furious that he had not been forewarned by the university. I told my friend, approximately, “I got news for you—you don’t hear about half the things you should know about.” What is true at Ohio University is true all over.

Louis Freeh thought the Penn State trustees needed to be told when the early reports of Jerry Sandusky’s actions were received by Penn State. Yes. But I think procedures need to be put in place which would make it very, very difficult to conceal information from the governing board. Whether the governing board will act on the information is another matter, but they can’t act if they don’t know.

Specifically, I think every public university, and probably most private ones, should have an employee whose “boss” is not the university administration but the chair of the board of trustees, and whose function it is to independently inform the board of anything that could potentially harm the university. That person should have the equivalent of subpoena power—the right to virtually any file or information source on campus. That person should have some, if not all, the functions of an inspector general in a federal government agency, and his/her reports should circulate regularly to the entire governing board.

My guess is that had that happened at Penn State, the board would have known about Jerry Sandusky’s behavior earlier.  There would have been a quicker resolution of the problem.  And, most importantly, a few young people might not have had their lives badly scarred, not to mention saving Penn State some scars itself.

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