Lawmaker Pushes Pennsylvania’s State-Related Universities to Become More Transparent

Penn State University has disclosed an annual list of its top-25 paid employees. Head football coach James Franklin tops the list and top administrators and physicians round out the remainder. What about the rest of PSU’s employees? Can female faculty members compare their salaries to their male peers? Right now, the answer is no because PSU is not fully subject to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (RTKL). But one state legislator has introduced legislation to make PSU and other state-related universities more transparent.

State-related universities include PSU, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln University. All four institutions receive significant state funding but are not operated by the state. These institutions contrast with the 14 institutions that are part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) (e.g. Shippensburg, IUP, and West Chester), which receive all their primary funding through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and are run by the state. PASSHE universities are “state agencies” fully subject to the RTKL. Salaries of all PASSHE employees are available online.

Since state-related universities receive most of their funding from other sources like private donors, they are not considered state agencies and are not fully subject to the RTKL. Currently, the state-related universities must only disclose a report to the General Assembly listing Form 990 tax information, the salaries of all officers and directors, and the highest 25 salaries paid to employees.

State-related universities are also subject to limited provisions of the Sunshine Act, which mandates that the universities’ Board of Trustees give advance public notice of any meetings where deliberation or official action will take place. Such meetings must be open to the general public. While the provisions in the Sunshine Act for open meetings and public notice serve important functions, it is questionable how many individuals have the time to consistently attend these physical, in-person meetings to understand what the state-related universities intend to do with taxpayer dollars.

State Senator John Blake has introduced legislation (SB 466) to broaden public access to information about the operations and finances of state-related universities. If SB 466 passes, state-related universities would become subject to increased reporting requirements under the RTKL. SB 466 would expand the reporting requirements for employees’ salaries at institutions with more than 2,500 employees, add reporting for the universities’ budgets and annual expenditures, and mandate itemized lists for how appropriations from the state are used. The bill would also add reporting requirements for prior fiscal years including similar information.

SB 466 would require the universities to make the information therein accessible to the public by posting it online in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable database format. The information would also need to be stored in the institution’s library for at least 10 years.

The State Auditor General recently listed transparency and accountability reforms as the number one issue for PSU to address governance concerns arising in wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He reported:

We strongly believe that PSU and the General Assembly must work harder to eliminate the special dispensations give to PSU, its Board, and its affiliates. Specifically, PSU should not be exempted from the good governance safeguards of the Commonwealth’s Right-to-Know Law and the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act. These exclusions were present in 2012 [referring to the Sandusky scandal] and should be removed as soon as possible. PSU disagrees with our findings and believes it is already sufficiently transparent and accountable. Performance Audit Report for the Period January 1, 2013 to March 31, 2017, page 2.

The Auditor General also reported that PSU has acted to decrease openness of Board of Trustee meetings, by discontinuing live streaming of the public comment period and by requiring all trustees to validate Board decisions publicly, even when trustees have dissenting views.

By increasing the disclosure and reporting requirements for state-related universities, SB 466 would increase transparency of tax-dollar spending. The four state-related universities receive more than $560 million annually from the state, so it is important for these universities to be responsible and be held accountable for how the funds are used. The RTKL provisions would allow the public to request access to information regarding how the universities operate without having to physically attend the public meetings for information.

A similar version of the bill has been proposed in the past, however, and the current proposal has been on the table since 2017, so its future remains uncertain and does not appear to be a legislative priority at this time. With sexual-abuse scandals continuing to arise at institutions like Michigan State University and Ohio State University and the need to know how millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year requires the General Assembly to give inclusion of the state-related universities under the RTKL serious consideration resulting in meaningful action of SB 466.

With contribution from Sarah Rothermel, J.D. Widener Law Commonwealth.

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