By Nora Van Horn and Taran Samarth
The quality of education received by Pennsylvanians now will reverberate for the coming decades, affecting Pennsylvania’s economy, environment, and governance. It will shape the future young Pennsylvanians will inherit.
Last March, in an op-ed published in Penn Live, now-Gov. Josh Shapiro laid out a plan to overhaul the state Board of Education, currently stacked with politicians.
As a recent Penn State University alum and a current Penn State University student, we know another educational board in need of reform: Penn State’s Board of Trustees.
As our state’s flagship public university and one of the country’s best research institutions, Penn State impacts the lives of not just the 90,000 students who attend the school, but also millions of Pennsylvanians: families with students at the university, employees that work on campuses and at medical centers, communities shaped by new ventures kickstarted with Penn State’s resources, and Pennsylvanians who are cared for or taught by Penn State alumni.
Our institution’s Board of Trustees set the strategic direction of the university. They approve tuition, room, and board rates. They guide the institution’s approaches to changing business and political landscapes.
Shapiro will choose six new members of the Board of Trustees. These trustees are tasked with looking out for the interests of a University meant to serve all Pennsylvanians. Unfortunately, these politically-appointed trustees historically don’t represent or advocate for average Pennsylvanians. Instead, they’re selected because they’re well-connected and wealthy. Selected trustees funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and federal political campaigns. Many have donated more in a year to political campaigns than the average Pennsylvanian’s salary.
One trustee is known as Pennsylvania’s “top lobbyist.” Five of the six governor-appointed trustees are current or former executives of large firms and companies. Once on the Board, they don’t seem to care about performing their jobs well—even failing to show up to the majority of meetings. Although only one-sixth of the whole Board, they help select a third of their colleagues, often opting for other corporate executives.
Pennsylvanians’ interests can and should be represented at our institution’s highest level. Rather than picking campaign donors to serve on the Board, Governor Shapiro has the opportunity to create fair and transparent selection processes and solicit recommendations for potential appointees from the public.
He can reinstate a 43-year-old bipartisan tradition, broken in 2017, of Governors appointing a student to the Board to increase the perspective of those touched most immediately by Penn State’s policy decisions. He can appoint professionals with the skill sets required to confront affordability, safety, and equity issues. And he can make these commitments now, publicly, as he begins his tenure as Governor.
Shapiro ran on a bold platform to tackle big problems: the climate crisis and a dual assault on democracy and reproductive care. But poor choices today create and exacerbate the big problems of the future.
Across Pennsylvania, the explosion of wicked problems requires new research-based solutions that universities have the resources to marshal.
The quality of Pennsylvania’s public higher education system will determine the quality of healthcare we get when we’re sick and the education our children will receive. It influences the policy-making and problem-solving skills of future community leaders. It will determine our capacity to innovate in response to environmental issues—and thus the quality of air that we breathe and the water that we drink.
These trustee appointments matter. Upholding a broken gubernatorial trustee appointment process will come at the expense of everyday Pennsylvanians, particularly young people.
This past November, it was us—Pennsylvania’s youngest voters, aged 18-29—who powered Josh Shapiro to victory. We showed up for him and his proposals to build a more equitable, safe, and democratic Pennsylvania for the decades to come. Now, as he steps into office and begins to delegate responsibility via hundreds of political appointments, we will learn if and how he delivers many of his campaign promises.
Will Shapiro show up for us?
Nora Van Horn, of Loretto, Pa., is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School, a 2022 Penn State graduate, and the founder of the grassroots organization Penn State Forward. Taran Samarth, of State College, Pa., is a fourth-year Penn State student and the research and policy lead at Penn State Forward.
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