State-related schools should be more answerable to Right-to-Know Law

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/AP
This May 23, 2019 file photo shows Temple University in Philadelphia. State Rep. Ryan Warner has introduced legislation to make Pennsylvania’s state-related universities more subject to the Right-to-Know Law.

It should go without saying that an agency that is state-related should be subject to the same demands as other state organizations.

Except it isn’t. Plenty of groups or institutions that live off their official-sounding titles when it comes time to ask for money try to distance themselves from those labels when it’s time to live up to the requirements for transparency and disclosure that go with them.

State Rep. Ryan Warner represents parts of Westmoreland and Fayette counties. The 52nd District Republican has introduced legislation to make Pennsylvania’s state-related universities more subject to the Right-to-Know Law. Many people probably are surprised to learn that those four schools don’t have to live up to the same requirements as other state agencies — including Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools like California and Indiana.

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The state-related schools — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — live in a kind of limbo. They are state schools when they want to be, like when they want to ask the governor or the Legislature for money. But ask them questions they don’t want to answer and suddenly they are a different animal with their own boards and governance separate and apart from the state.

It’s a murky area that first came sharply into focus in the early 2000s. That was when a reporter asked just how much Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was making. At the time, Paterno was synonymous with a school with “state” right there in the name. Heck, the lyrics of the university’s alma mater don’t even mention the school’s real name, just cooing glowingly about “the glory of Old State.”

The argument was that Paterno was not a state employee, so his salary didn’t have to be disclosed the way the governor’s chief of staff’s pay did. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the State Employees’ Retirement System had to disclose the coach’s salary.

It was kind of a letdown when it happened, revealing that the longtime coach was nowhere near the top of his field when it came to paychecks, although he did make more than then-president Graham Spanier.

But if there is anything that says the state-related schools need to be more transparent, it is probably the fact those names are eclipsed by what ended their careers. The Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal sent former assistant coach Sandusky to prison and Spanier and two of his top associates to short stays in jail. Paterno was fired in 2011 over it and died less than three months later. The whole incident was an epic failure of disclosure.

In 2009, the Right-to-Know Law did make state-related schools answerable when it came to some information, including areas of finance and salary.

It is not enough, however. The schools should not be allowed to continue to dress up in the word “state” when it benefits them if they aren’t willing to do all that comes with that uniform.