The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State reflects a culture of secrecy at the football powerhouse, according to a former Penn State trustee.

On Sunday Ben Novak, successful attorney and a 1965 Penn State graduate who served as an alumni trustee from 1988 to 2000, published the first in a series of essays attacking the culture at Penn State. It’s not just that Penn State administration is secretive; it’s that the governance structure of the university ensures concealment of any problems.

According to his piece, which was apparently published as an advertisement in the Centre Daily Times:

Ever since the Sandusky scandal erupted, members of both the University community and the public have been puzzled by the silence of the Trustees. Many find it hard to believe that all thirty-two of the individual Trustees are in favor of firing Joe Paterno, and they naturally wonder why none of them has spoken out. When any other type of governing body is called to deal with a problem, individual members usually offer their ideas as to how it should best be handled. But there has been not one peep from Penn State Board of Trustees members. Why is that?

The answer lies in the rules of the Board, specifically Standing Order IX, which contains without doubt some of the most amazing rules you will ever read governing the conduct of democratically elected representatives.

[One section], for example, requires that members are expected to: “Speak openly within the Board and publicly support decisions reached by the Board.” While the first part of this sentence — “Speak openly within the Board” — is laudable, the second part — “and support decisions reached by the Board”—is not. What the second part means is that no member of the Board may publicly speak against a decision of the Board once it is adopted. Thus, the silence of the individual members on the Board is guaranteed by the rules of the Board.

This is apparently the first part of Novak’s campaign for the board of trustees.

He’s captured something really important here about the nature of governance structure at the American university. Problems like those Novak outlines appear to transcend Penn State.

The trouble is that powers that are designed to structurally ensure the power of the administration, and presume that the decisions made by the administration are good, often fail to provide enough oversight to protect the academic institution from bad decisions.

The board of trustees at a university is elected, or appointed, in various different ways to reflect the character of institution. In Penn State’s case, the board of trustees made up of 32 members:

Five trustees serve in an ex officio capacity by virtue of their position within the University or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They are the President of the University; the Governor of the Commonwealth; and the state secretaries of the departments of Agriculture; Education; and Conservation and Natural Resources. Six trustees are appointed by the Governor; nine trustees are elected by the alumni; six are elected by organized agricultural societies within the Commonwealth; and six are elected by the Board of Trustees….

The president is chosen by, and works for, the board. It is in this way that the administration doesn’t enjoy absolute power and answers to the university itself.

Anything that breaks down this chain of command undermines the system of checks and balances and, indeed, undermines the basic democracy of academia

The sexual abuse scandal, one of the more heinous crimes imaginable, is only the most extreme examples of the potential result of these sorts of closed governance policies.

Imagine what other, lesser crimes and misuses of resources could be covered up.

It’s unclear how Novak, if chosen for the board again, would address the problems he’s now so eager to elucidate, however. He was already on the board for 12 years. Such policies were in operation then, too.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer