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The Penn State group that campaigned for change on its trustees board gets one elected, as board bids goodbye to outgoing president

"This is a giant first step," said Christa Hasenkopf, 41, an atmospheric scientist and 2003 graduate who founded an open air-quality database.

Christa Hasenkopf won a seat on the board of trustees. She was backed by a student and young alumni group, Penn State Forward.
Christa Hasenkopf won a seat on the board of trustees. She was backed by a student and young alumni group, Penn State Forward.Read moreCourtesy of Penn State Forward

One of three candidates supported by a group of Pennsylvania State University students and alumni who wanted to see younger, more diverse members on the board of trustees was elected, according to results announced Friday.

Christa Hasenkopf, 41, an atmospheric scientist and 2003 graduate who founded an open air-quality database, the first to make information readily available in any location, received more than 7,000 alumni votes to earn one of three open alumni-elected seats on the board.

“I think this is a giant first step,” said Hasenkopf, who was backed by the group Penn State Forward. “I’m excited to work with the rest of the board. I think — I know — there are like-minded individuals on the board who were excited about the ideas represented by Penn State Forward.”

» READ MORE: Penn State students want to be heard, so they’re running candidates for the board of trustees

Earlier this year, the fledgling group announced that it wanted to change the makeup of the mostly white and mostly male board — a volunteer body that sets policy and strategic direction, approves an annual budget and tuition rates, and provides broad oversight for everything from academics to athletics. Penn State Forward’s effort prioritizes climate change, educational equity, student safety, and transparency in governance. It was patterned after a similar push at Harvard in 2019.

The election results were announced Friday at a board of trustees meeting where the board also said goodbye to president Eric J. Barron, who is retiring after eight years. In addition to a video tribute, the board named the Penn State Innovation Hub in downtown State College after Barron, gave him emeritus status, and awarded him the Penn State medal, which recognizes outstanding achievement and has been around for decades but awarded only three other times.

» READ MORE: He led Penn State in the Sandusky aftermath and through a pandemic: Eric J. Barron reflects on eight years

“We’ve had some ups and downs,” said Barron, who led the university through the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and then the pandemic, “and I will tell you if I were a little bit younger, I would do it all over again even if I knew it wouldn’t be smooth, because this is a special place.”

Also at a board committee meeting this week, the university announced the results of a survey on homelessness and food insecurity, with nearly a quarter of the 2,051 student respondents on the University Park campus saying they have some trouble getting food daily and 16.8% indicating they have had difficulty finding adequate housing. The results mirror those of other colleges and universities, as shown in a national report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, based at Temple University.

The university has begun addressing the need with a student emergency fund, housing grants and other efforts, Barron noted in his report to trustees. Barron and his wife gave $525,000 last year to establish an endowment fund for student food insecurity.

On alumni trustee elections, in addition to Hasenkopf, incumbent Ted Brown, a 1968 graduate and CEO of Ketch Consulting Inc., received the most votes — more than 9,000 — and will remain on the board. Elected to the third seat was newcomer Barry Fenchak, who has two Penn State degrees and is a State College-based investment adviser. They will serve three-year terms.

Incumbents Bill Oldsey, a 1976 graduate and educational publishing executive, and Barbara Doran, a 1975 graduate and CEO of BD8 Capital Partners LLC, were not reelected.

Also not successful were the two other candidates backed by Penn State Forward: Farnaz Farhi, 33, a 2010 graduate and Iranian-born ob/gyn at George Washington University, and Ed Smith, 38, who got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Penn State, where he served as president of the student Black Caucus, and now works for the Kresge Foundation, promoting college opportunities for students from marginalized groups. They were among eight candidates vying for the positions.

There are nine alumni-elected seats, three of which turn over every year. They represent about one-quarter of the more than 30 seats on the board. Others are appointed by the governor, elected by agricultural societies, chosen by the board itself, or serve as a result of their position in state government or within the university.

There were other new trustees appointed in those groups as well on Friday. In total, including the alumni seats, there are five newcomers and three incumbents who got board terms. Valerie Detwiler, senior vice president for Reliance Bank and a 1983 graduate, and M. Abraham Harpster, a 1993 alumnus and co-owner of Evergreen Farms Inc., were reelected by the agricultural societies.

The board appointed Richard Sokolov, a 1971 alumnus and vice chair of Simon Property Group, a retail real estate group; Naren Gursahaney, former president and CEO of the ADT Corp.; and Tracy Riegel, a 1985 graduate and a former project manager for the Vanguard Group.