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Penn State

Can the public know if outside groups are paying Penn State salaries?

by Wyatt Massey of Spotlight PA |

The Nittany Lion statute on Penn State's University Park campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
STEVEN M. FALK / Philadelphia Inquirer

The Penn State Transparency Tracker is an ongoing effort by Spotlight PA to document and share the ways in which the university is, and is not, being transparent with the community. Due to its special “state-related” designation, Penn State is not subject to open records laws beyond the public disclosure of basic financial information.

STATE COLLEGE — A February investigation by ProPublica revealed that Penn State’s student health insurance provider, UnitedHealthcare, pays the salary of the university employee who coordinates coverage.

The central Penn State directory lists a university phone number and email address for the employee, a setup that raises questions about the school’s relationship with UnitedHealthcare. According to the ProPublica investigation, the insurance coordinator could access data from Penn State and UnitedHealthcare. Potentially thousands of Nittany Lions use the Student Health Insurance Plan, which is required for international students. Graduate assistants are automatically enrolled in the plan and other students can enroll if they do not have sufficient coverage near their campus.

Penn State told ProPublica that students “benefit” from the arrangement and that such a relationship is “not uncommon” among student health insurance plans. However, the article highlighted the connection to the insurer was not clear to the public.

Interested in learning if other Penn State employees receive compensation from third parties, Spotlight PA asked Penn State the following questions:

  1. How many people listed in the university staff directory have some or all of their wages/salary paid for by a third party? (This does not have to include grant-funded positions)

  2. How can members of the public know whether a person listed in the university staff directory has financial interests in a third party or is having their wages/salary paid for by a third party? (This does not have to include grant-funded positions)

Penn State responded in an email:

“Please allow me to point you to Section 8.13 of the University’s bylaws, which deals with employee conflicts of interest,” wrote Lisa Powers, senior director of university public relations.

“Section 8.13 Disclosure of Potential Conflict of Interest by Employees of the University. Employees of the University shall exercise the utmost good faith in all transactions touching upon their duties to the University and its property. In their dealings with and on behalf of the University, they shall be held to a strict rule of honest and fair dealings between themselves and the University. They shall not use their positions, or knowledge gained therefrom, in such a way that a conflict of interest might arise between the interest of the University and that of the individual. Employees shall disclose to the administrative head of the college or other unit in which they are employed, or other appropriate superior officer, any potential conflict of interest which they are aware of before a contract or transaction is consummated. This bylaw shall be published to the University community at least once annually.”

Seeking clarity, Spotlight PA followed up with this question:

  1. To be clear, is there a way for members of the public to know whether the Penn State employee they are interacting with has a conflict of interest or has financial interests in a third party (such as their wages/salaries being paid by a third party)?

Penn State did not respond.

Based on that information, here’s what you need to know:

At least one Penn State employee is paid by a third party with financial ties to the university. The university declined to disclose how many other employees are in a similar situation or how the public can identify those employees. However, the university’s conflict of interest policy suggests Penn State leaders do know which employees have outside interests.

As of March 9, the student insurance coordinator remains listed as a university employee, and neither the Penn State staff directory nor the University Health Services staff directory webpage indicates that their salary is paid by a third party.

Have an idea for the Penn State Transparency Tracker? Submit tips or questions to wmassey@spotlightpa.org. You can also share documents and other materials to help make our reporting more robust. Read more about sharing such information here.

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