Outgoing chair Mark Dambly reflects on board's progress, accomplishments

Dambly talks about efforts at board transparency, access and affordability, diversity during his tenure

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After a decade of serving on the Penn State Board of Trustees, including three years as chair, Mark Dambly’s term at the helm officially ended today (Nov. 13) with leadership of the board transitioning to long-time vice chair Matt Schuyler. Penn State Today sat down with Dambly to reflect on his time with the board:

TODAY: You were originally appointed to the board in 2010 by then Gov. Ed Rendell. Was serving on the University’s Board of Trustees something you were considering or were aspiring to?

DAMBLY: Kind of both. It was an opportunity brought to me by state senate majority leader Dominic Pileggi, who I worked with when he was mayor of Chester.  Dominic is a friend and was aware of my Penn State connection.  When he became majority leader, he asked me to come to his office and told me there was an opening on the Penn State board and asked if I would be interested in serving. He then had a conversation with Gov. Rendell, and that’s how I got appointed. It was something that I didn’t seek out. However, it was brought to me as an opportunity that I was more than honored to accept.

TODAY: You served for a number of years before being elected as vice chair in 2016 and chair in 2017. What made you decide to run for a leadership position?

DAMBLY: I had served as chair of a number of committees and I had been on the executive committee. I felt like I had something to offer in terms of my leadership skills and as a proud alumnus. I sensed a unique opportunity to work with my colleagues to restore trust, transparency and collegiality. I was encouraged by a number of board members to pursue leadership, so I took the opportunity. Ira Lubert when he was chair gave me the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with him as vice chair, and so when Ira decided not to pursue a second term, it seemed natural to me to run for chair. 

TODAY: Right. Lubert was elected chair and you vice chair in 2016. Can you talk more about your relationship with him and how that influenced your leadership style?

DAMBLY: Ira and I are close, personal friends. When he became chair and I became vice chair, we were almost interchangeable from a leadership perspective. He offered me the opportunity to be involved in every conversation, every decision, every meeting. It gave me an incredible opportunity to have insight into what the roles, responsibilities and obligations are to be chair.

TODAY: It seems you’ve taken that same approach with your relationship to Matt Schuyler as your vice chair.

DAMBLY: Yes. You know, in my own business, my business partner who I met at Penn State is my best friend. Each of us is certainly capable of running our own businesses, but I find if you’ve got a good team around you, it makes it more rewarding, gives you the opportunity to have different perspectives and have opinions that you value and trust. That’s the way Ira and I worked, and when I became chair, I wanted a vice chair that I could work with on a day-to-day basis in the same way. Everything I do as chair Matt is involved, and we essentially make our decisions jointly. 

TODAY: When you began as board chair, what were some of your main priorities?

DAMBLY: One of my main objectives was to increase the level of trust and transparency within the board. We embarked on a process of very open leadership. We do twice monthly calls between board meetings. We’ve opened up all of the committee meetings and scheduled these meetings so every trustee can attend every meeting. If a trustee has a particular interest in a subject matter, they can engage in the conversations whether they are on the committee or not. 

Our time is valuable together — there’s so little time when you get down to it, and we wanted to increase the opportunity for us to have meaningful dialogue on generative issues. We asked the committees to meet off-cycle — in between the board meetings — and they would have conference calls where they could address the day-to-day subject matters. That way, they could have a more efficient regular board meeting, and have time for more generative conversations.

We conducted the first comprehensive board self-assessment. Once we got the results of the assessment, we had conversations about what were the issues we had to deal with to become more effective board members and leaders. We established annual board retreats that we dedicate to a particular subject matter. The last board retreat focused on student mental health, and we had a good conversation with professionals from the University, students talking about their issues with mental health and how we can be more supportive of CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). It’s having those opportunities to take a deeper dive into a subject matter that’s really important. 

Ultimately, we’ve increased transparency and trust, and that’s helped to lower the temperature in the room and significantly improve collegiality overall.

TODAY: What are some other areas of progress?

DAMBLY: The University’s fiscal aspects are very important to us. We worked with President [Eric] Barron to bring in a consultant to do an optimization study to help the board and the University assess opportunities for efficiencies and savings. The University has harvested hundreds of millions of dollars in savings as a result, in areas such as procurement, benefits and IT.  The study also identified new opportunities for revenue growth.

We’ve also increased accessibility for key University stakeholders to the trustees. Under my leadership, at each board meeting we have separate meetings with the student leadership, the Faculty Senate leadership and the staff leadership, all to increase accessibility to the trustees.

Another thing we’ve done is to focus with President Barron on succession planning for his President’s Council. We understand in today’s times that people come and go for various reasons. Penn State is a $7 billion enterprise, and it’s important that we understand there are succession plans in place for the University’s leadership.

TODAY: One of the biggest issues Penn State, as well as the rest of the country, has been confronting is racism and bias. Can you talk for a moment about how the board under your leadership has engaged with this issue?

DAMBLY: It’s one of my highlights that the board established an oversight group to hear updates from the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety and review progress with the action steps and priorities developed by the president. He and we wanted to have a task force that would hold leadership accountable for progress.

We also believe our board should be representative of the constituencies that we serve — that’s why we’ve set an aspirational goal of at least 50% underrepresented groups by 2025, and also repurposed a committee to focus more on advancing equity, inclusion and diversity at Penn State. We currently have 36% board representation from underrepresented groups, and we think it’s achievable.

TODAY: Another effort you and the board have been closely involved in is Greek-life reform. Can you talk about how the trustees partnered with University leadership on this front?

DAMBLY: President Barron put together a series of Greek-life reforms, and we have been very supportive. We had three members of our board participate in the development of the implementation guidelines, as part of a task group created by Dr. Barron.  I believe the reforms have been overwhelmingly successful. [Vice President for Student Affairs] Damon Sims has done a great job of implementing those reforms. They allow the Greek community to be successful, to have meaningful social opportunities, to give back to the community and to have purpose. 

TODAY: In recent years, the board has made a concerted effort to keep tuition in check and you’ve led the group to freeze tuition three years in a row. Can you explain why it has been so important for the board to keep tuition costs in check during your time as chair?

DAMBLY: I’m a bit of a fiscal hawk. The optimization study identified significant savings and opportunities and efficiencies in the University’s operations. We felt it was important to take those savings and return them to the students. We have one of the higher tuitions in the Big Ten, and one of the lowest contributions from the state — though still significant. Coupled with the fact that student debt is increasing, we felt it was very important to hold the line on tuition.  In doing so, the University has also been able to maintain quality.

TODAY: One of the biggest challenges facing Penn State, as well as the rest of the world, is the coronavirus pandemic. Can you talk about how the board under your leadership has worked with University leadership to confront COVID-19?

DAMBLY: All of the credit should go to the administration, faculty, students and staff. We began with weekly meetings with President Barron and his leadership team to make sure we were informed and engaged with the University’s strategies to get our students back to campus. We reviewed in-depth fiscal projections and were focused on giving approval for the resources necessary to minimize the impact to our workforce and to keep our faculty, students and communities as safe as possible. For example, we wanted to make sure the University had the resources for quarantining and testing, and off-ramps to whatever might happen, as well as on-ramps. I think we’re going to be successful, and the University has done a yeoman’s job. We’ve been really supportive of the budget amendments to provide the administration the resources needed to be successful in meeting these goals.

TODAY: Looking to the future, what are your thoughts for the board and the University?

DAMBLY: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the delivery system for higher education is going to change. It was changing before, it has changed during the pandemic and it’s going to be different post-pandemic. The board’s going to be helping the University navigate the next era of higher education. It’s going to be different. The opportunities to learn remotely are greater than we once thought. I think the board is really going to need to focus on strategic areas, including affordability, financial management, innovation and the future of higher education.

TODAY: What aspect of your participation on the board will you miss the most?

DAMBLY: I’ll miss the collegiality and the chance to work with some of the brightest minds from so many walks of life. I’ll miss the opportunity to build and maintain relationships. It’s been immensely rewarding to serve the University that gave me the education to be successful professionally and personally.

Last Updated November 13, 2020