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Penn State Fights to Keep Operations Secret After Sandusky

Penn State Fights Legislature to Keep Its Operations Secret
While Penn State vowed to make the president's office more accountable to prevent another cover-up, President Rodney Erickson said the university opposes proposals that would make its operations subject to disclosure under the state's open records law. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Pennsylvania State University is standing fast against efforts to open its records to public scrutiny as it overhauls its administration after the Jerry Sandusky child-sex case, President Rodney Erickson said.

Lawmakers and Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who sits on the school’s Board of Trustees, say they want to make it subject to all the provisions in the state’s Right-to-Know law, which permits people to seek e-mails, contracts and other records from government institutions. While almost all U.S. public universities are subject to such statutes, Penn State was excluded when Pennsylvania overhauled its law in 2008.

“We’re not the Department of Labor and Industry,” Erickson said in an interview this week at Bloomberg LP’s headquarters in New York. “We’re a somewhat different operation.”

Penn State, which was established by the Legislature in 1855 and got about $280 million in state support last year, has been assailed for a culture of secrecy. Investigators found university leaders sought to protect the football program by covering up allegations more than a decade ago that Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, sexually abused children on campus. A grand-jury report last year revealed the scandal, leading to perjury charges against two administrators, the resignation of President Graham Spanier and firing of football coaching legend Joe Paterno.

Sandusky’s Sentencing

Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse in June and will be sentenced next month. The university is also the subject of investigations by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. attorney in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It faces at least three victims’ lawsuits and in July was fined $60 million by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which stripped the football team of its wins from 1998 through 2011.

“The scandal Penn State has been through in the last year shows why they never should have been exempted in the first place,” said Nathan Benefield, director of policy analysis at the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy, a Harrisburg-based free-market advocate. “It certainly wouldn’t have prevented the things that happened a decade before but it might have helped reveal the cover-up.”

Limited Disclosure

While Erickson said the president’s office has been made more open and accountable to the university’s Board of Trustees, the university opposes legislation filed in Harrisburg that would extend all of the provisions of the open records law. Instead, it supports a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi that would subject campus police to the law while also increasing disclosure of how the university spends state funding.

Penn State and three other so-called state-related institutions were required under the 2008 law to disclose only annual tax filings and top officials’ salary information. The others are Temple University in Philadelphia, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln University.

Erickson, a former provost who took over as president when Spanier resigned in November, said making the university disclose documents and communications to the public raises “issues related to our research,” because of trade secrets and proprietary information it gets from working with private industries. He also said many donors want their gifts secret.

“There are aspects that even the governor would confirm that are unique to Penn State and the other state-related universities in the commonwealth,” said Erickson, who first joined Penn State’s faculty in 1973.

Working Fine

Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the governor, said Corbett has been advocating for months to end the exemption. He said Corbett, elected in 2010, would support exceptions for intellectual property or national-security considerations.

Harley said that the 14 university campuses in the Pennsylvania higher education system, which are more closely controlled and less expensive than the state-related institutions, “are all subject to the Right-to-Know law and they operate fine. They’re continuing their mission without interruption.”

Pennsylvania, Delaware and Alaska are the only three states that exclude public universities from open records laws, according to Terry Mutchler, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.

‘Prurient Interests’

Pileggi, a Republican elected in 2002, sponsored the overhaul of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law in 2008, which made it easier for the public to get internal information from government agencies. Penn State opposed its inclusion, with the former president testifying that it would have a “profound negative impact.”

“This bill does far more than feed the prurient interests of newspaper editors looking for a headline,” Spanier, who is now a tenured professor on sabbatical, said in a video of a hearing. “This bill will fundamentally change the way we operate, the way our trustees govern and the way I administer their policies.”

Eric Arneson, a spokesman for Pileggi, said a proposal to amend the open records law will be released soon, with the Legislature due to return from recess next week.

At least two bills have been filed in the past year that would simply end the exemption for Penn State and the other state-related institutions.

“I don’t believe they should have ever been exempted,” said Eugene DePasquale, a Democratic state representative from York, whose bill was referred to committee. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than removing their exemption.”

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