ProPublica & The Former Chairperson

I want to talk at a high level about what boards do before pointing out a potentially unexplained relationship between ProPublica’s authors and an outgoing Hershey Trust board member’s attempt to retain power.

Screengrab from ProPublica

I always struggle with keeping my mouth shut when the press gets it wrong about Milton Hershey; I always remind myself of what it was like as a student in these very public discussions, and I remember how we were used as mere talking points for others political agendas. With that said, something jumped out at me in the recent string of ProPublica articles on the Milton Hershey School that is worth bringing up.

  • One important contextual piece missing from these articles is that there is a former chairperson fighting to retain power in their last year on the board.
  • The timing of this former chairpersons legal maneuvers and their involvement in ProPublica’s articles is incredibly curious.

What Private Education Boards Do and Don’t Do

Boards are meant to guide schools at a higher level while the school’s administration and staff carry out the day-to-day activities. Usually, a school presents a plan to the board, the board approves or denies it, the school carries out the plan or takes it back to the drawing table to try again. Boards vote together, so no one person will decide the fate of a plan. Accountability can happen at any level, for both the creation of the strategy as well as its execution. At the board-level: when making a decision the board leans on values and the mission when deciding a plans fate. The board also needs to ensure that current student and future student needs are met. You spend all the money now and you won’t be able to spend money on students in the future. This isn’t context often given when reporting on boards: they don’t do the day-to-day work, and they have to also think about future students.

Let’s think a bit more about making a board-level decision making in the current climate: the past decade has been rough for educational endowments regardless of their asset mix. To really simplify the past decade: the Great Recession and now the COVID-Recession will certainly have altered school plans being submitted as well as board’s decision on what to approve; weathering the storm in the short-term as well as not harm its ability to serve future students in perpetuity will impact everyone’s behavior involved in this process. At-minimum: I don’t think the ProPublica articles speak to systemic reasons that may be influencing decisions, particularly the massive accumulation in the schools ‘Rainy Day Fund’. If you asked “how much savings is too much” the answer would be different prior to and after the Great Recession. Maybe the eye-popping accumulation ProPublica reported on is just an overcompensation for fears of another economic shock; maybe it’s a nefarious deficit that goes against the mission the school was created for. Personally, it looks like that massive war chest is about to be spent on not just the creation of a whole new school, but its expansion, as well as ensuring it too lasts in perpetuity (for future students; for-e-ver). At a glance, as an outsider, a network of early education schools lasting forever looks like a $1B move.

Leaving out this kind of context is curious considering who was quoted prominently in this series, which leads us to

The Former Chairperson: Robert Heist.

If you read between the lines of the ProPublica reporting: it looks like Bob Heist wasn’t aware of decisions that the school was doing in his ~9th year on the board (board members serve up to 10 years). Particularly, if you read deeper into the linked court filings filed on April 2nd 2021— it looks like Milton Hershey created a whole new school where either Bob Heist didn’t know, or did and disagreed with it.

Beginning of an exchange where Bob reaches out to the new Chairperson as well as the school and is ignored. Source: Link Here.

A holistic timeline of ProPublica & the former chairperson:

  • September 2020: Bob Fernandez, a reporter in this very ProPublica series, reports on the potential new school.
  • November 2020: Bob Fernandez by way of ProPublica began reaching out to alumni about their experience. I spoke to them in December about my experience.
  • December 2020: a new chairperson is elected, effective that day.
  • January 15th 2021: Bob Heist starts documenting his requests for more information about school decisions from the chairperson as well as the school.
  • January 26th: the Catherine Hershey School was greenlit; obviously planned long before and maybe the focus of his information requests. Bob Heist is quoted (as the chairperson) in support of the new school. Maybe he was in the loop, or maybe this is just normal muted corporate applause.
  • January through April: Bob Heist continues to drill the school and the chair for information. His actions are filed publicly in court on April 2nd.
  • April 16th: ProPublica begins publishing their series — quoting Bob Heist and linking us all to the court documents.

Just an outsider musing here: is Bob Heist an outgoing board member not kept in the loop about board level approvals? Was he a lone ‘no’ vote on this plan to open a new school? Instead of working within how boards should work: he sues to get more information, and reaches out to the press about it. In the wake of this, he’s been opaquely posting online about it.

Bob’s musings on LinkedIn lean more towards a persecution complex than someone who should be leading let alone participating in decisions at a board-level. His behavior captured in court filings, these articles, and now online speaks to me as someone who is not an effective board member. It makes you think — maybe he knew full well the new school was being built and is now raising a stink because it isn’t his show anymore. Maybe he didn’t know a thing because everyone knew he was a poor micromanaging leader who raises stinks.

Who really knows — but in any event: I would hope ProPublica stops being so pliably supportive of former chair, and a soon-to-be former board member, who looks like they are strategically releasing information for their own purposes.

I also continue applaud the braveness of students and alumni who continue to stand up and tell their own stories; I hope that one day these stories can truly be our own.

Drexel Psychology 2010, Penn Ed Policy 2015, Harvard Health Management 2018, Yale Blavatnik Fellow 2020