by Walter Brasch
Although more than one million Pennsylvanians are members of labor unions, and the state has a long history of worker exploitation and union activism, neither of the two largest university systems has a labor representative on its governing board.
The only labor representative on the Board of Governors of the State System of Higher Education (SSHE) in its 28 year history was Julius Uehlein, who served 1988–1995 while Pennsylvania AFL–CIO president. The appointment was made by Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat.
Only two persons have ever represented labor on Penn State’s Board of Trustees. Gov. Milton Shapp, a Democrat, appointed Harry Boyer, the state AFL–CIO president, in 1973. Shortly after Boyer retired in 1988, he resigned as a trustee. Richard Trumka, a Penn State alumnus and Villanova law school graduate, now the national AFL–CIO president, served as a trustee, 1983–1995, while president of the United Mine Workers. He was first appointed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, reappointed by Gov. Casey, and not reappointed when Tom Ridge, a Republican, became governor.
The 32-member Penn State Board of Trustees is divided into five groups: ex-officio members (6), Governor appointments (6), members elected by the Alumni Association (8), Business and Industry members (6), and elected members from Agriculture (6). The Agriculture representation dates to 1862 when Penn State (at that time known as Farmer’s High School) was one of the first two land grant institutions; the land grant institutions were created to provide advanced education in agriculture and the sciences. Currently, 15 members either are or were CEOs. Among them are the CEOs of U.S. Steel and Merck. One of the ex-officio members is the Penn State president, which creates an interesting potential for a conflict-of-interest. Except for one student representative, most of the rest are lawyers or senior corporate or public agency executives. Only six members are women, only three are members of minority classes.
The lack of diversity became an issue this week when the Faculty Senate called for a more diverse board. The challenge to the Trustees was unusual because the Senate “has always been a relatively non-confrontational group,” according to Dr. Paul Clark, head of the university’s prestigious Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, who had served as a senator for 15 years. However, child molestation charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, combined with how poorly the university administration and the secrecy-clad Trustees handled the problem, exposed the university and trustees to additional scrutiny.
“Because of the number of union members in Pennsylvania, and the need to have working people’s issues and perspectives represented on the board, we always thought it made a lot of sense for that constituency [working class] to be represented on the trustees,” says Dr. Clark.
At one time, Penn State had an active labor studies advisory committee, dating back to the early 1950s when Milton Eisenhower was the university president. That committee met at least four times a year and “was well respected,” says Irwin Aronson, general counsel for the Pennsylvania AFL–CIO, and a Penn State labor studies graduate. After Dr. Graham Spanier became president in 1995, the committee quickly dissolved because “he didn’t seem to have much interest in it,” says Richard Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL–CIO president. There is no doubt, says Aronson, that “the previously warm relationship between labor and Penn State’s administration collapsed under Dr. Spanier’s administration.” Bloomingdale says he hopes Rodney Erickson, Penn State’s newly-appointed president, will see the necessity to reinstate the committee.
Penn State also has what may be the state’s premiere collection of labor history primary source documents, especially from the coal region. The letters, notes, diaries and other materials are archived in the Paterno Library.
Penn State is a state-related private university which received $279 million in state funding for the current fiscal year; it has 94,000 students on its 24 campuses, with 44,000 of the students enrolled on its main campus. About 3,000 Penn State staff (mostly those working in maintenance, physical plant, dormitories, and the cafeteria) are members of the Teamsters. About 1,300 registered nurses, including those of the Hershey Medical Center, are members of the Service Employees International Union. However, there is no faculty union at Penn State. Part of the problem, says Dr. Clark, is that faculty in the large business and agriculture colleges, plus those in engineering and science, tend not to have strong union loyalties; those in the liberal arts tend to have more acceptance of the value of unions.
SSHE, the larger of the two systems, has 120,000 students enrolled in 14 universities. Its 20-member Board of Governors isn’t much more diverse than Penn State’s. The Board has three student representatives who are appointed by the Board after being nominated by the presidents of the 14 universities. However, because of the way the students are nominated by presidents of the individual campuses and then selected by the Board of Governors, most usually have views similar to what the administration sees as mainstream and acceptable. Membership also includes four legislators, selected from each political caucus (Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate) and the secretary of the Department of Education; the rest are appointed by the Governor, with the consent of the state senate. Gov. Tom Corbett and his designated representative, Jennifer Branstetter, a public relations executive, serve on both Penn State and SSHE boards. Most of the other members are lawyers or senior business executives. One of them, Kenneth M. Jarin, who served as chair for six years and is currently a member, is a lawyer who represents management in labor issues.
The lack of at least one representative of labor on the SSHE Board of Governors is because of “a lack of sensitivity to the labor point of view,” says Dr. Stephen Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF), which represents 6,400 faculty. Dr. Hicks, who has tried to get the Board to include a faculty member, says that when a Board has most of its members “who have run a business and made money, you get a certain viewpoint.”
Richard Bloomingdale says he’s proposed to the boards and governor persons who could effectively represent the working class, “but they were always turned down.”
Even one representative, says Bloomingdale, “would still leave the Boards with heavy pro-business orientations.”
There is no question that politics and a pro-business or anti-labor philosophy has left working class Pennsylvanians with no representation on the boards of universities that are designated as “the people’s universities.”
Unfortunately, the lack of labor representation is the case at almost every public university in America.
[Walter Brasch is an award-winning reporter and syndicated columnist, and the author of 17 books. His latest book is the novel, Before the First Snow, primarily set in Pennsylvania. It is a look at the counterculture between 1964 and 1991, with a social justice and pro-labor focus. Disclosure: Dr. Brasch is professor emeritus of mass communications from the SSHE system.]