With the world abuzz over today's release of the Freeh Report on sexual abuse at Penn State, it might be worth checking in on one effort to make the university's leadership more accountable. And while the school is pledging "to strengthen Penn State's role as a leading academic institution" in light of the Sandusky scandal, a legislative effort to make it as transparent as other large state schools has been idling.
Late last year, state Rep. Eugene DePasquale (D-York) and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, introduced HB 2051, a measure that would require Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh to abide by the state's open records law. State agencies, including state-run schools like Indiana University of Pennsylvania, are governed by a "Right to Know" law that allows public access to a variety of written records. But while Pitt and Penn State receive nine-digit sums of taxpayer money from the state each year, state law specifically exempts from such records requests. (Also exempt are Temple University and Lincoln University.)
HB 2051 was put forward after watchdog groups -- including Sunshine Review and Pittsburgh's own PublicSource -- documented how unusual the exemption was. But while the Sandusky scandal has understandably drawn the most concern, other aspects of school operations may be of crucial interest to residents as well. For example, PublicSource reported, the exemption means residents are largely in the dark about how much money Pitt and Penn State receive from corporations and other private interests.
DePasquale, who is running for state auditor general and who was in town yesterday, told City Paper that "if you get a vote [on HB 2051], it would pass overwhelmingly. You hear from people on all kinds of issues, but nobody has told me that we have to keep Penn State's exemption intact."
The challenge has been getting the vote. HB 2051 has been bottled up in the state House's State Government Committee since its introduction. The chair of that committee is none other than Cranberry's own Daryl Metcalfe.
Metcalfe has told the right-leaning Pennsylvania Independent "that he did not recall DePasquale ever consulting him about pushing HB 2051 through committee." But DePasquale told City Paper that he sent a letter to Metcalfe urging him to move the bill forward: Metcalfe "never responded to the letter," he says. State Rep. Babette Josephs, a Philly-area legislator who is the ranking Democrat on the committee -- and who often spars with Metcalfe -- issued her own call for Metcalfe to move on the legislation in December.
Metcalfe "has a lot of things on his mind," Josephs told CP, somewhat tartly: Metcalfe's causes include anti-abortion legislation, voter ID and immigration.
While noting that the state's new budget allocates millions to state-supported schools without requiring any additional disclosure, The Independent asserts that "transparency measures may be lurking on the horizon" -- with movement possible during the fall session. But it seems likely that if legislation does move forward, schools like Pitt and Penn State will be held to a lesser standard of disclosure than other state agencies. DePasquale confirmed for City Paper that corporate contracts, for example, may still be kept under wraps, meaning that the next time Penn State releases a report on Marcellus Shale drilling, you may have to guess about how much money the school receives from the natural-gas industry itself.
DePasquale said concerns about donor privacy would likely have to be addressed for the bill to pass.
"I'm a pragmatist," he said.