The lead-up to the Penn State Board of Trustees election has been fascinating indeed. I find it hard to separate my experiences as a voting alumnus versus my experience as a candidate, so I figured I would share with you some of my observations “from the inside” to give you a taste of just how concerned I am about the way things are unfolding in the lead-up to the opening of voting on Tuesday. If you are serious about fixing Penn State and returning it to the place of prominence and trust it deserves I hope you’ll read on.
E-mail Conspiracies: I’ve seen several of these over the past couple of months. We’ve got the candidate who gathered email addresses and sent campaign emails in a less-than-above-board fashion, and the “leaked” email that shows a candidate who garnered the support of a Facebook group only to personally endorse a different trifecta of candidates.
Then there are the two email threads to which only the candidates are privy (thankfully): one was a generous offer from the folks at Undefeated Broadcasting and the hosts of The Goon Show to do 15 minute interviews on their own dime/time which turned into a “reply all” nightmare of epic proportions with some candidates spewing some pretty misguided vitriol (by the way if you haven’t heard my interview with the great folks from The Goon Show take a listen here).
The second came when Roger Williams, the executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association, reached out to the candidates to offer two additional opportunities to have their voices heard. One was an offer for candidates to answer three additional questions about challenges facing higher education institutions to be posted on the website for The Penn Stater. The other was an offer for a meet-and-greet on the morning of the Blue-White game at the Intramural Building (yours truly has committed to attend in person). Again another “reply all” fiasco which bordered on a personal attack of Mr. Williams – classic “shooting the messenger” kind of crap.
So what is the big deal? There’s a serious lack of professional behavior that plagues some of the candidates in the pool, and that will only retard progress in the long run. If other members of the BOT are distracted by having to babysit and police this kind of nonsense then that takes their attention away from the bigger issues. Not to mention that it is generally a violation of the collaborative spirit that is required to fix this mess! Please keep in mind that every one of a candidate’s actions in this election are clues to the kind of leader they will be. If you don’t like something they did leading up to the election, chances are you won’t want them representing you on the BOT.
Losing Perspective: Some candidates are promising some pretty heady stuff and bashing those who don’t “take a position”. Some voters are jumping up and down to get the entire current BOT to resign. Both trends are pretty concerning and I’ll tackle them in order.
First, the candidates need to remember that they will be 1 of 32 members. Having new ideas and perspectives is great. Shitting on candidates who want to take a more measured approach? Not so good. Having the skills to navigate and negotiate a pretty politically charged environment is a critical trait for the candidates selected. Change won’t happen overnight, and it is ok for a candidate to say that they don’t have it all figured out. Here’s what I think IS critical to determine about a candidate:
- Will they listen? Whether it is the current Board members, alumni, staff, students or football fans, a new Board member needs to hear all opinions and keep an open mind. Cutting people off because you don’t agree with them is not the sign of a good leader.
- Will they voice their opinions? Some people talk a good game behind a keyboard, but don’t carry through in the face of adversity. Perhaps one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in the actions of the current BOT is the unanimity – you have to be certain that your choice of candidates will at least be willing to put themselves out there in a responsible way. Again this needs to be done tactfully, and from what I’ve seen so far, some candidates have less than desirable decorum.
- Do they have the experience? I’m not knocking anyone personally. But let’s face facts – some of the candidates with less experience are just that. They haven’t seen or heard enough in their careers to be able to handle some of the situations they’ll be up against. We’re talking about staring down prominent leaders of industry and a sitting governor and telling them that they don’t agree…and more importantly persuading those same people that their point of view is the correct one. Some skills are innate and some come with experience. I’ve had some pretty tough, frank conversations with high ranking state officials about their testing results and flaws in their policies, and I can honestly say they were conversations for which I wouldn’t have been prepared earlier in my career.
Second, please stop with the calls for the sitting BOT to resign en masse. It won’t happen, and you don’t want it to happen. If you think things are chaotic now, imagine the situation where you have a complete lack of leadership?! Change needs to be gradual, and you must continue to make your voices heard. The fight doesn’t end in early May! We need to continue to get qualified alumni candidates cycling through each year to dramatically change the balance of power and push the change agenda. By the way, this applies not just in the BOT election, but also in the PA gubernatorial elections in 2015 and the Presidential election in November. Education policy can and should be affected at all levels.
Playing the “Joe” Card Too Much: I love Joe Paterno – always have, always will. He embodies everything I wanted to be in an adult – working hard to be the best at what you do but not willing to compromise your principles. I admit I second-guessed him at first. It was counter to everything I believed, but I am not so whitewashed that I could not keep an open mind that he may have actually done something wrong. Ultimately I do not think that he was treated fairly at any point in this process, and I do think that he acted correctly. But correcting the wrongs heaped upon Paterno should not be the focal point of anyone’s campaign – I would think even the Paterno family would agree with that. A candidate must be committed to first fixing the governance issues, revisiting the Charter and Bylaws to ensure that a proper system of checks and balances is in place, and rewriting policies that give super-clear guidance to all employees on the proper procedures for reporting issues and the repercussions for not doing so correctly and in a timely fashion. That does not mean that the BOT shouldn’t try to make formal amends for the way Paterno was villainized but we have to take steps to address the bigger issues first.
Oooh, Shiny: I never begrudge anyone their financial successes in life. Everyone has their own path in life and makes their own decisions. For some that leads to financial success, for others it leads to a different kind of fulfillment. So if someone has the resources to invest their own money into a slickly produced commercial, more power to them. However, I do take offense to a couple of aspects of this much ballyhooed media campaign. First, telling a reporter how much you spent is a bit crass to say the least. Second, and this goes to you voters, pledging your vote based on that commercial is lazy – lots of people out there who said “he has my vote” based solely on watching the video. Yes it was well done, but it plays the “Joe” card way too heavily and didn’t appear genuine – credibility issues aside. Don’t agree? The snarky sports website deadspin.com has a very similar take to mine. Some of you will say “sour grapes” to which I would respond that Penn State needs leaders, ones with stellar credentials and experience in fixing messes like the one Penn State faces – if this commercial tells you those things about that candidate then I think you need to re-read the bios and platforms a few more times. Don’t get distracted by shiny things.
In summary, there are some extremely talented people from 1-86 who have achieved great things in their careers – some are just getting started on their journey, some are at the halfway point in their professional careers, some are in the twilight of their accomplishments. Some candidates have the name recognition but don’t have the experience. Some candidates are boisterous but misguided. And yet others have been trustees before, yet can we trust this time will be different? This isn’t some ESPN poll where you can blindly pick the answer based on your heart (like “best college gameday environment ever!”) or a name you know.
Now for the shameless plug. I live and breathe the challenges of getting students prepared for life beyond high school on a daily basis. In fact, in the week leading up to the Blue-White game I will be traveling the great state of Idaho engaging students to define their own roads in life by doing what inspires them. It is a joint partnership between the College Board and Roadtrip Nation, and fits perfectly with what inspires me – continuing the legacy of my dad, who challenged me to make a difference in the lives of students everywhere. I have fixed governance, policy and process issues since my very first day out of Penn State, and I have the endorsements of some pretty prominent people in the non-profit and education spaces. You don’t have to go far to find the most qualified candidate on the ballot – Vote Matt Lisk #1 on the Ballot.