Editor's note: The following is reprinted with permission from the Oil City (Pa.) Derrick newspaper.
A Clarion University student alleges he was denied a position on the school's council of trustees because of a letter to the editor he wrote critical of Gov. Tom Corbett, but the governor's office says it merely pursued another candidate who better represented all students.
Sophomore John Owens says he lost the appointment of student trustee to the alternate candidate, junior Darren Young, because of a letter to the editor he wrote in February to his hometown newspaper, the TIMES NEWS in Lehighton, Pa.
In the letter, Owens said Corbett's proposed cuts to education funding and increases in prison spending sent the message that "education is not a priority of this administration in Harrisburg.
"Personally, I'd like to see more kids go off to college, get degrees, get good paying jobs and put that money back into the Pennsylvania economy rather than taking the route that Tom Corbett would like to see and have our prisons fill up while our state universities crumble due to a lack of funding," Owens said in the letter.
But Janet Kelley, spokeswoman for the governor's office, said the letter had nothing to do with the decision.
"It is our discretion who we select to serve on the board," she said in an email. "We chose someone who we felt would represent the student body of Clarion University.''
During the spring semester, Owens (a Panther Valley High School graduate who resides in Nesquehoning) applied for the position of student trustee and became the top candidate for the vacancy, with Young being named the alternate. The candidates must go through a rigorous application process, involving interviews at the university and state levels.
Administrators at Clarion and a spokesperson with PASSHE agreed that it is out of the norm for the alternative candidate to be appointed by the governor.
"Historically, the first name is usually approved by the governor," said Karen Whitney, president of Clarion University.
Lee James of Oil City, chairman of the Clarion University council of trustees, and Whitney both said they were aware of the letter, but did not know if it was the reason Owens was not appointed.
The student trustee is the representative of the study body on the Council of Trustees, which oversees finances, facilities, the president and policy making at the university.
Owens applied for the position in March after seeing advertisements for the upcoming vacancy.
His first interview was in April with a selection committee made up of about a dozen council members, administrators, faculty and students from the university, Owens said.
The interview went "extremely well," he said, and a few days later he received a call from Chris Meyers, former student trustee, to tell him he was the committee's first choice and was named the student trustee candidate.
In the next step of the process, Owens was interviewed in mid-May at the PASSHE offices in Harrisburg by Rita Frealing, former director of public liaison of PASSHE, as well as other state system personnel, he said. Again, Owens thought this interview went well.
The chancellor's office submitted Owens' name to the governor's office for approval in May. Owens said in mid-June he did a phone interview with Mike Downing, deputy director of public liaison for the governor's office.
The interview was going well for the first part until Downing began to ask questions that "seemed a little politicized for a student trustee position," Owens said.
The final question Downing asked was "if appointed to this position, is there anything that has happened in the past that would be embarrassing to you, your family or the governor?"
Although he was not ashamed of the letter, Owens said he told Downing about it because he wanted to have full disclosure. Downing asked Owens to email a copy of the letter to him and Owens complied, but he said left the interview feeling a bit wary.
"That's when things started to go wrong," he said.
Owens sat in on the July Council of Trustees meeting but did not vote.
In August, Owens said Linda Campbell, assistant to the Clarion president, called him to say the governor's office had asked for the alternate for the position to be submitted into the process so the governor had more options for the student trustee position. This development led Owens to speculate that the letter had become more of a problem than he originally anticipated.
The fall semester began at Clarion and there was still no news about the position. Owens went to meetings for various organizations and committees as the student trustee candidate and sat in on the September Council of Trustees meeting.
After the presidential election in November, and after hearing no report from the governor's office for months, Owens said he emailed Downing to get an update on the status of his candidacy. On Nov. 9, Downing called Owens to inform him that Young had been appointed as student trustee by Corbett.
Owens said when he asked if the letter is why he was rejected, Downing said the letter didn't have anything to do with the decision.
"But I don't buy it," Owens said. "I don't buy it one bit I think it was politically charged."
Whitney said she had not yet received an explanation on why Owens' candidacy was not approved by the governor, but said both Owens and Young were "wonderfully qualified" to be trustees.
"John is a credit to the university," she said. "He's an outstanding student and solid student leader."
Owens was offered a position on the Clarion Student Association board after Young left a vacancy when he was appointed trustee. He said he is happy with his new position, but the whole student trustee process left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I can find no other reason to think why I wasn't appointed other than the letter," he said.
Owens said he doesn't regret exercising his right to free speech and said he would write the letter again if given the chance, but it does send a negative message to other students.
"How can I be a good student trustee if I don't stand up for the students?" he said. "I mean, they would be my constituency."