Penn State Alumni Air Support for Paterno, Criticize Board during Pittsburgh Forum
PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take long to figure out what answers Penn State alumni wanted.
Angst and anger over the firing of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno, the Board of Trustees’ actions and inactions since the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal exploded and the university’s missteps with public and media relations the last two months dominated the discussion Wednesday night at the Doubletree Hilton in Pittsburgh.
More than 600 alumni gathered for the first of three town-hall meetings, an open dialogue between Penn State President Rodney Erickson and members of the largest alumni association in the world. The tour stops in King of Prussia on Thursday and New York City on Friday.
If Wednesday’s event is any indication, expect little insight into any of those questions.
Why was Joe Paterno fired?
“I expect the board will address that,” Erickson said. “But it really was two decisions that were simultaneously that involved the president (Graham Spanier) and the coach (Paterno) and they were done in that context.”
Someone proposed the entire Board resign immediately. When Erickson said the board would have to decide such a move, laughter erupted from the audience.
“Seems like a lot of people asked a question and when [Erickson] didn’t want to give an answer or give an answer that wasn’t popular, he made it very short or, ‘We’ll look into that,’ ” said Clyde House, 50, of Canonsburg, who is also a Penn State Washington-Greene alumni chapter board member.
Take this question: What message is sent to the greater public when a pledge to emphasize academics precedes a two-month search for a football coach?
“I think it says Rod Erickson doesn’t intend to be around for as long as football coaches usually serve,” Erickson replied, drawing some laughs. Erickson then discussed his decision to step down as president of the university when his contract expires June 30, 2014. Erickson said he planned to retire in June 2013 before the scandal hit.
Most wanted to know how the university could have been so unprepared to handle the Sandusky allegations after it was first reported last March by the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
Erickson said the board was briefed on an ongoing investigation into a former Penn State employee, and members of the university staff met with the Grand Jury.
“No one would have known the results of the grand jury presentment at that time," Erickson said.
Instead, he said Louis Freeh’s ongoing investigation — which Erickson said should be completed by May — may shed more light on what policies and procedures should have been implemented.
“There does not seem to be a lot of faith and confidence with the alumni for the Board of Trustees,” House said.
As for legal fees, Erickson said university insurance and other funds that don’t include donor money, tuition money or taxpayer money will be used, including paying the legal fees for Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, who face perjury charges and were accused of failing to report a crime.
About $360,000 was spent just in the month of November to pay for its crisis communications deal, said Erickson, adding the bill should be lower in subsequent months since November was the peak of the scandal.
There are plans to honor Paterno for his Hall of Fame career and contributions to the university, but Erickson did not know a timeframe.
He said he wrote a note to Paterno and his wife, Sue, Wednesday morning thanking them for their continued donations to the university, also wishing Paterno a speedy recovery in his battle with lung cancer.
As expected, football was one of the hot-button issues of the evening, from Paterno’s firing to the way the university handled disseminating information about the 40-day coaching search.
“I can appreciate the fact when he says it took us two months to find a new coach,” House said. “We’re trying to be open and transparent, yet you never heard how many candidates there are.
“I can appreciate the fact I don’t need to know who those candidates are because if they have another job, you don’t want their bosses to know. But you can say we contacted eight people, we’re going to look at five at those. This week we interviewed three people. We can’t tell you who they are, but we’re making progress.”
After the meeting, Erickson walked around the room, shaking hands with alumni and thanking them for coming out.
The forum, organized by the Penn State Alumni Association in light of the ongoing upheaval at the university, ran about 90 minutes. Tweets and other immediate updates from the gathering are available via this page.
Meanwhile, here's a quick overview of some points that Erickson made Wednesday evening, culled from Nate Mink's Twitter feed:
- "I never said we're going to de-emphasize football," Erickson said. "Now is the time to emphasize our academic prowess."
- Erickson will hold student-town-hall meetings every semester during his presidency, he said. His contract is due to expire in mid-2014.
- The investigation being led by former FBI Director Louis S. Freeh should be complete by the end of the spring semester, Erickson said.
- Penn State's crisis-communications bills for November alone amounted to $360,000, Erickson said. He said the bills for subsequent months will be lighter.
- Erickson wants to honor Paterno in the future, he said.
- Erickson acknowledged there's a perception that Penn State hasn't been the best at transparency. "We will do better," he said.