STATE COLLEGE - Some trustees at Pennsylvania State University are balking at a board proposal that would discourage them from talking publicly about a university matter outside of a board meeting without prior approval of the board chairman.
Trustee Alice Pope, a psychology professor at St. John's University, called the practice "totalitarian" and said it would stifle the free exchange of ideas typically considered a cornerstone of a university.
Board members Barbara Doran, a private-wealth manager, and former state Sen. Robert Jubelirer also said they viewed the proposal as an attempt to restrict free speech.
The proposal comes as a rift continues between a faction of alumni-elected trustees - who have been publicly critical of the board leadership since the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, and who oppose this move - and the rest of the 38-member board. Their disputes have included lawsuits and public sniping.
Discussed by trustees during a committee meeting Thursday, the proposal calls for the board to "convey a consistent message," and said that "in most instances" the board chair should serve as spokesman. Members are to refrain from talking disparagingly about a board decision because it could damage the university, the proposal states.
But it's not binding.
"There's nothing in there that's punitive at all," said university president Eric Barron, who said many university boards have similar guidelines. "This is an expectation of membership."
The proposal is expected to come up for more discussion and a vote at board meetings in November.
"I think it clarifies the expectations of trustees," said Betsy Huber, a trustee and government relations director for the Pennsylvania State Grange. "[It allows] free speech in the public meetings, but once the decision is made we need to be united and supportive of the decision of the majority."
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a statement Friday, saying the proposal would leave "a chilling effect on free speech and oversight."
The group said that the president and the board chair should be the primary spokesmen for a university and that trustees should use discretion and respect confidentiality. But, it also said, "demanding an appearance of unanimity undermines the ability of trustees, especially those at public institutions, to perform their oversight function."
Michael Poliakoff, president of the council, said the Penn State board should reconsider the proposal.
"As public fiduciaries, trustees are obligated to act in the public interest, and, when appropriate, to challenge conventional wisdom, to ask difficult questions, and to express dissenting opinions," he said.
Penn State trustee Richard Dandrea, a lawyer with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, declined to discuss the matter with a reporter on Friday, saying it would violate the very principle he supports.
Under the proposal, board members would continue to be able to speak their minds at both public and private board meetings. But when they leave the meetings, they must remain mum - without approval of the board chair, now Ira M. Lubert, a Philadelphia-area resident and chairman and cofounder of Independence Capital Partners and Lubert Adler Partners.
Lubert, who supports the proposal, said board members with opposing views should share them in board meetings.
"They can have all the free speech in a public forum," he said. Once a vote takes place, Lubert said, "we need to speak with one voice."
Pope questioned what would happen when alumni trustees run for reelection. They need to be able to discuss board decisions and their roles, she said.
"It quashes the right of alumni trustees," she said.