Shakeup at Penn State might — or might not — cause renewed interest in board of trustees election

written by Jeff Frantz, Harrisburg Patriot News

Welcome to the political science experiment that is the Penn State board of trustees election.

Will there be a few thousand voters or half a million?

No one knows.

Will those voters know more than a handful of the 86 candidates or what they stand for?

No clue.

Will the alumni casting ballots be motivated by Joe Paterno’s firing, which brought protests online and at town hall meetings? Or will they care about issues impacting tomorrow’s students, such as tuition, research and academic reputation?

Flip a coin.

Does the record number of candidates mean alumni angered by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal will turn out in droves? Or will the passing months, and new board leadership, be enough for alumni to once again become complacent observers of the university?

No one is sure what will happen April 10 when alumni begin voting for three of the 32 seats on Penn State’s board.

Individual candidates — and groups of candidates — have been working tirelessly since December to win a spot on a board that is increasingly questioned about its power structure and transparency. They’ve started websites and held meet-and-greets. They’ve raised questions about one another’s fitness to serve.

One candidate even aired a TV commercial.

One group endorsing candidates — Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship — and one group of candidates — Penn State Alumni Trustee-Choice — established themselves early. Both strongly support the Paterno family. Their names come up repeatedly among the most-likely voters.

How much of an advantage is that really?

Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship’s Facebook page has less than 4,600 friends. The three Penn State Alumni Trustee-Choice candidates with dedicated campaign Facebook pages each have less than 100 people “liking” them.

More than 100,000 Penn State alumni association members automatically will receive ballots, and any nonmember alumni can request one. Everyone guesses there will be more votes than in recent elections, when around 10,000 alumni cast ballots, but nobody knows how many more.

How much support will a candidate really need?

Maybe less than you think, said Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg and a Penn State graduate.

“As much as [alumni] are invested, it’s still not going to probably be the type of turnout where a majority of alumni cast ballots,” Borick said.

Voting advocates are thrilled when they get 50 percent turnout for a presidential election, Borick said. Alumni traditionally ignore the trustee election. Anything close to 50 percent turnout would be a surprise, he said.

If the votes get spread out across the field, a candidate could win with a relatively low percentage of voters.

Alumni probably will scan the daunting list of names for people they know, Borick said, and then people they recognize. If they haven’t picked their three candidates yet, they’ll look for people who graduated in the same year, people who live in the same area or work in the same field. If trends from traditional elections hold, some women will want to pick a woman candidate, Borick said.

Name recognition will be huge. If a candidate isn’t well known for something such as playing football for Paterno, his or her best bet is probably to join a group.

Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship formed as a group of alumni who wanted to change the board but focused their public rhetoric around Paterno’s firing. More than 50 people asked for the group’s endorsement. The three people it ultimately backed all wrote about the need to apologize to the Paterno family in their official position statements. One of them, Anthony Lubrano, has traveled the state with Franco Harris demanding justice for the legendary coach.

They enjoy a first-mover advantage in claiming to be the most righteous Paterno defenders on the ballot.

Could it backfire?

The majority of candidates focused their position papers on keeping Penn State affordable while restoring its worldwide brand as an elite university. With another state-funding debate looming in Harrisburg and the current board having discussed a private-school model with Cornell, might alumni be more focused on what’s next?

Perhaps, Borick said. But who knows if those people will show up?

The alumni focused on Paterno? They could be the all-important base.

“I can’t only talk about [Paterno], but I certainly make that the focus of my outreach efforts,” Borick said. “If you want to reach out to the masses, and those masses were engaged because of this issue, your sales pitch on it is crucial.”

The Paterno issue has caused some friction among the candidates.

“He was a fabulous football coach, and he did fabulous things for Penn State,” candidate Jayne Miller said. “For that to be the sole issue for someone to get on the board of trustees — if anything, it misses the point of what this university faces.”

More than 50 people asked for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship’s endorsement. More than 20 of those endorsement seekers ran even after they were passed over.

They complain that the group now censors its Facebook page, and tries to control information such as the current trustees. The group counters that it is simply promoting its message.

Getting good information has been an issue. Penn State did not let the candidates include a website with their 250-word biography or position statement. The student radio station has interviewed some candidates and streams those sessions online.

Penn State now is hosting a meet-and-greet for candidates during Blue-White weekend, when thousands of alumni return to campus for the spring football game. But with the event being held in the center of campus, a decent walk from the stadium, turnout is uncertain.

The alumni association also has asked each candidate to answer three questions. It will post the answers on its website the day before voting begins. None of the questions address the board’s handling of the Sandusky investigation or the ensuing scandal.

Nikos Phelps, the president of the Harrisburg Chapter of the alumni association, said alumni seem interested to him but aren’t sure how they will approach the ballot.

“I think [turnout] will be half-decent,” Phelps said. “The question is, with that many candidates, is it feasible for anyone to do their homework?”

Voting will continue until May 3.

What’s next for the 84 losers? For many, May 4 is the beginning of campaign 2013.

“It will show who’s committed to the cause,” candidate Marlene “Myke” Atwater Triebold said.

Maybe by then, we might have a better idea how this experiment works. 

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