State-related universities testify on proposed Right-to-Know law changes

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Officials from Penn State, along with those from the University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln University and Temple University, appeared at 10 a.m., Monday, Oct. 21, before the state Senate Committee on State Government to discuss Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law and the numerous proposed changes to that legislation.

The four state-related universities already are subject to multiple reporting and disclosure requirements under Right-to-Know (RTK) and other legislation that provides information about how the Commonwealth's appropriation is spent. However, recent legislative proposals have sought to expand how state-related universities are treated within the Right-to-Know Law. The Senate committee on Monday specifically addressed Senate Bill 444, written by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), which is the most comprehensive rewrite to the existing law.

If approved, SB 444 would bring the campus police departments of state-related universities within full purview of the RTK Law by including those police departments in the definition of "local agency." Officials from the state-related universities support this change, and agree with SB 444 that the unique status of state-related universities should be recognized in the Commonwealth’s system of higher education by maintaining a separate chapter of the RTK Law – Chapter 15 – that specifies the disclosure requirements applicable to the state-related universities.

As stated in the written, joint testimony, "State-related universities are not state agencies or even similar to state agencies. The state-related universities are accountable fully for the state funds they receive through the extensive and voluminous information disclosed and submitted to the Commonwealth because of the requirements of annual appropriation bills, the existing Right-to-Know Law, the school code, and a number of other existing federal and state reporting requirements."

The written testimony also noted that inclusion of the state-related universities as state agencies under RTK would be contrary to the fundamental legislative design of the state-related institutions and create significant negative impacts and unintended consequences.

Steve Dunham, general counsel for Penn State, who was present at the hearing to represent Penn State, and his counterparts from the University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln University and Temple University were questioned by members of the committee regarding the specific impacts their institutions would feel if required to come under compliance with the full RTK law, instead of the provisions under Chapter 15. At issue was what makes those institutions state-related rather than state agencies.

"It's simply not appropriate to define state-related universities as state agencies under both legal and practical considerations," said Paul A. Supowitz, vice chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations and associate general counsel for the University of Pittsburgh. "The General Assembly intended that they not be treated as state agencies, but rather independent entities that do receive a significant amount of state funding. The authorizing statutes for the state-related universities provide that the entire control of the operations of these universities reside with the board of trustees for each institution."

Dunham explained the dual nature of state-related universities that sets them apart from their state-owned counterparts within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. "We are clearly public universities and want no doubt about that. We are public universities and proud of it. But we have private attributes and characteristics in both the way we get funding and the way we perform our services. When one looks at the tech-transfer functions that major research universities and the state-related universities engage in; when one looks at the medical schools, the health care environment in which some of us operate; when one looks at a variety of activities that the state-related universities engage in that have a private aspect, a private characteristic, that's a huge strength for the Commonwealth."

Dunham said the ability to operate successfully and remain competitive with private counterparts in those areas, state-related universities need to be able to look at the way information about those enterprises is shared. "It's not to say that some of that information couldn't be reported in appropriate ways. But the private attributes do carry with it the rationale for not being subject to RTK like the same attributes being performed by private universities or private companies."

Regarding the similarities and differences among Pennsylvania's state-related institutions and the public, state-owned institutions in the Big Ten, Dunham explained, "There are apples and oranges here. Penn State and the state-relateds are different from the way higher education is structured in those other states. Not just in levels of funding. They are different in governance issues. They are different in mission. They are different in the way their structures are set up. They are different in the policies for enhancing revenues. ... It's important to acknowledge that they are different … in real and important ways."

In reiterating the support Penn State and the other state-related universities have for full accountability to the Commonwealth and public for appropriated funds that support its educational mission, Dunham said, "Could the law be strengthened to make it clearer, to make information more accessible, to make it more available? Yes, we think it could, and we're very happy to work with you as that goes forward."

For the full text of the joint testimony, click here.

Last Updated October 22, 2013