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chapter 14 The Board of Trustees, Insularity, and Athletic Administration “There has been for many years a rubber-stamp culture on our college boards.” —Anne Neal (2011) “Do not turn one blunder into two.” —Baltasar Gracián (1647) Before Graham Spanier was chosen president of Penn State in the mid-1990s, a long-time president of George Washington University, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg , told a Penn State professor that he unfortunately could not pursue the Penn State presidency at that time because it was widely known, and to Trachtenberg positively, as the “Last of the Imperial University Presidencies.”1 If the Penn State administration was imperial, including athletic administration, and if it was insular and secretive about the athletic program, it was in part due to the policy and actions of the Board of Trustees that allowed it to be so. It was not always that way, but certainly the presidency of George Washington Atherton (1882–1906) was an example of a kingly presidency at Penn State and was similar to the presidencies at many American institutions of higher education in his day. That state of affairs, as will be seen, was also in evidence as result of Board of Trustee policy toward the upheaval at Penn State coming from the Vietnam War and civil-rights unrest around 1970. University boards of trustees are generally organized to set policy for their institutions, but they often neither do that nor raise questions about how the administration is administering their polices. By tending to rubber-stamp the actions of a strong, imperial president, trustees could allow the president to conduct the university in a detrimental as well as a positive way. Penn State was confirming what has happened in many universities: “There has been for many years,” President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni Anne Neal has stated, “a rubber-stamp culture on our college boards.”2 From the 1890s until the 1960s, the full Penn State Board of Trustees had little influence on university policy. As Smith_text.indd 150 12/7/15 11:11 AM The Board of Trustees, Insularity, and Athletic Administration 151 Penn State historian Michael Bezilla has shown, the entire board “merely ratified decisions that had already been made.” It was, Bezilla emphasized, “neither democratic nor easily accessible to public scrutiny.” Executive Committee secrecy, “conducting its own business in private,” drove policy that was often beneficial to the growth of Penn State, but there could be negative outcomes as well.3 President Eric Walker (1956–1970) probably best described how the Board of Trustees Executive Committee and its president controlled the university in the 1960s, but he was careful to do so only after he retired. Board President Cappy Rowland, stated Walker, “was not democratic in any sense of the word.” According to Walker, “things were decided not by the board of trustees but by the executive committee,” often by only a few on the executive committee. Venting his spleen, Walker described the Executive Committee meetings: “The smoke-filled room of whiskey and beer, loud mouthed ignoramuses dispensing their ignorance on topics far beyond their ken.” This, Walker wrote, led to “the unhappiness of the rest of the board at being steamrollered and denied the proper part in the trusteeship.” Could Walker’s background have influenced his terse description of the trustees and especially that of Cappy Rowland? To Walker, Rowland was a beer-drinking steamroller who “never read a book, never went to the theater, and never listened to music.”4 That Walker was born in England and received three degrees at Harvard in electrical engineering might have influenced how he felt about those he considered inferior and guilty of making unintelligent decisions in an alcohol-laden room. If President Walker’s description came even close to describing the leadership of the Board of Trustees as he was about to retire, it is little wonder that Walker supported a policy change giving the president more power. Yet it only came with turmoil created by the war in Vietnam and the civil-rights movement during the 1960s and into the early years of the 1970s.5 Not only would the important turning point allow the president to administer the policies of the Board of Trustees, but the new president would be able to officially set policy. At Penn State, and elsewhere, not only were students vigorously protesting the Vietnam War, but also the civil-rights movement found African Americans making strong demands upon President Walker for greater...


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