PSU trustees hope to address alumni concerns

PSU trustees hope to address alumni concerns

Published Jan. 20, 2012 4:30 p.m. ET

Penn State President Rodney Erickson is trying to address the perception that the university isn't being as open and honest as it could be in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Erickson said in remarks Friday to the university's Board of Trustees that he's continuing to reach out to alumni, students and other groups and working to be more accountable.

The trustees are meeting for the first time since the chaotic week in November after dozens of child sex abuse charges were brought against Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach who had been highly regarded for his charity work with children.

Some alumni are calling for wholesale changes in the board's makeup and more transparency from the board and administration.


''I also believe openness and communication are the best way to move Penn State forward,'' Erickson said.

He called the last two months an ''extraordinarily trying time'' for the school, and said the university is cooperating with several ongoing investigations related to the Sandusky case.

The meeting, in the ballroom of a campus hotel, drew a larger-than-normal crowd of at least 200 people, including a couple of candidates hoping to win election to the board this spring. Former Penn State running back Franco Harris, a vocal critic of the administration and supporter of ousted coach Joe Paterno, also attended.

Some alumni and former players, Harris among them, have been critical of the 32-member board for how they handled Paterno's dismissal four days after Sandusky was charged on Nov. 5.

After remaining mostly silent the last two months, trustees this week began to divulge the reasons behind their actions, hoping to sway skeptics and critics seeking change.

Leadership positions were up for election at Friday's meeting. In the morning, the board also heard a very broad presentation on the school's athletic programs.

''We have lots of things that we need to do in terms of the board and how it operates, and I think you'll see some positive things come out of that,'' trustee Mark Dambly said Thursday.

The handling of the Sandusky scandal has sparked unprecedented interest among potential candidates for three alumni-elected seats on the board that are up for a vote this spring.

Typically, about six to 12 candidates step forward. But the group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship alone has received 30 applications seeking an endorsement. The group started in mid-November, growing out of what a spokeswoman said was a common frustration among members over a lack of due process at the school for Paterno.

Comments this week by the trustees about why the board ousted Paterno on Nov. 9 failed to convince the alumni group.

Trustees interviewed Thursday by The Associated Press said they decided to force Paterno out in part because he didn't meet a moral obligation to do more to alert authorities about a child sex abuse allegation against Sandusky.

The trustees also cited statements from Paterno in the days and hours leading to his dismissal - after nearly a half-century of leading the Nittany Lions - that they felt challenged the trustees' authority. Board members saw that as inappropriate, particularly at a time of intense scrutiny over the Sandusky case.

The head coach had testified before a state grand jury about a 2002 allegation against Sandusky that was passed on to him by a graduate assistant. A day after that graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, came to see him, Paterno relayed the accusations to his superiors, one of whom oversaw campus police. Board members didn't think that was enough.

''There's an obligation, a moral responsibility, for all adults to watch out for children, either your own or someone else,'' Dambly said. ''It was in our opinion that Joe Paterno did not meet his moral obligation and for that reason - me, personally for that reason, I felt he could no longer lead the university and it was unanimous.''

But Dambly and three other trustees interviewed Thursday on the Penn State campus said they still intended to honor Paterno's accomplishments and contributions to the school. He won a Division I record 409 games over 46 seasons and the Paterno family has donated millions of dollars to the school.

''Obviously Joe Paterno is a worldwide icon and has done a tremendous amount for the university,'' trustee Joel Myers said. ''We have sorrow and all kinds of emotions, empathy, sympathy for what has occurred. That's universal.

''But the university, this institution is greater than one person.''

An attorney for Paterno called the board's comments self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, lawyer Wick Sollers said.

''He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time,'' Sollers said.

In a separate statement, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship said the board's comments have ''done nothing but raise additional questions.''

Dambly insisted Paterno was not fired, although he never appeared as coach again. He remains a tenured faculty member.

On Friday, Erickson also outlined his goals for the coming year which he said could be challenging because of tightening budget strings. He said the school needed to focus on its ''core business'' of academics.

Erickson, who plans to step down in 2014, also said the university ''must always be mindful of the need for institutional humility, integrity and resolve ... Let us seek balance in our words and deeds.''