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Sims: World Likely to 'Recognize Penn State for What It Is'

on December 01, 2011 10:19 AM

For years before his dismissal in 2000, iconic basketball Coach Bob Knight and Indiana University "seemed to be synonymous with one another," Penn State Vice President Damon Sims recalled Wednesday night.

But after Knight's firing, he said, Indiana became known "more for things it truly should be known for" -- including academics.

"The one thing I know with absolute certainty is that (Penn State) is truly a great university," said Sims, who worked three decades at Indiana.

And he sees Penn State's current crisis as a chance to illustrate "how excellent we are in every other (non-football-related) respect," he said.

"I'm optimistic that the world will move quickly past these events and recognize Penn State for what it is," said Sims, who oversees student affairs.

His remarks came during a two-hour town-hall forum attended by an estimated 450 people in the HUB-Robeson Center. Organized by three student-government groups, it was carried live statewide on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, on WKPS (90.7 FM) and online by WPSU.

Organizers said it marked the first event of its kind at Penn State, as eight top university administrators fielded student questions both from the HUB audience and from other PSU campuses statewide.

Shaken by the criminal charges filed last month and an ongoing criminal investigation, students posed questions from the personal to the political, the emotional to the financial, the critical to the empathetic.

One student, visibly breaking down, asked how to deal with feelings of shame as a Penn Stater.

Administrators reassured her. Henry Foley, the dean of the Graduate School, said: "A lot of us feel similar feelings. ... There's nothing wrong with expressing that you feel that way."

President Rodney Erickson soon joined in: "It's important to talk to each other about this."

The administrators responded to every question asked, though they did not directly answer all of them. They stepped around some inquiries that appeared to carry legal implications or to rebuke the university trustees, to whom the administration answers.

At one point, senior Devon Edwards asked why no undergraduate has been included on a trustees-initiated investigative committee. No administrator directly answered his question, though a graduate student on the committee -- Rodney Hughes -- said he would represent all students' interests.

Among other exchanges at the forum:

  • Erickson said the news media have not forced any rash decisions at the university. And despite widespread rumors, he said, Penn State has no plans to remove the Joe Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium or to remove the Paterno name from Paterno Library. In time, he said, he believes the university will find an appropriate way to honor the Paterno family.

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  • Repeatedly emphasizing themes such as openness and integrity, Erickson said he is putting a focus on transparency at Penn State. He underscored the volume of budget information that the university already places online, but said that Penn State will comply with any strengthened transparency standards that may win passage in Harrisburg.
  • In the search for a new head football coach, Erickson said, he wants to emphasize academics and ensure that "whoever comes into this position (will) have strong academic values and appreciate that part of the university." He also said that students should "continue to ask for and really demand transparency in different areas of the university, not just in athletics."
  • Madlyn Hanes, the vice president for Commonwealth Campuses, told students that "these horrific allegations and the events surrounding them do not define you. Remember that. ... I would hope and I would submit to you that we should emerge from this more compassionate and with resolve. I think, going forward, the communities that you join will benefit from that compassion that you will ... learn, and have learned."
  • Robert Pangborn, the university provost, said his disappointment the past several weeks "has been displaced in some ways by the tremendous pride" inspired by a student-led candlelight vigil and other student actions.
  • Terrell Jones, the vice provost for educational equity, said the scandal is yielding plenty of lessons. He is resolved, he said, that "this will never happen again on my watch."
  • Rodney Kirsch, the vice president for development and alumni relations, said Penn State is "not falling off the fundraising cliff by any measure at all." While "we're going to have a bump in the road," he said, "a lot of Penn Staters believe in this place; they believe in you; and they're going to support you."
  • Erickson advised students to prepare for "ups and downs" in how Penn State is portrayed in the national news media. "We're going to see spikes in the amount of interest and certainly the opinion across the country," he said. "I think you all should be prepared for that."
  • At another point, Erickson said he has felt deep shock, sadness and disbelief. He first learned of the criminal charges the day before they were handed down, he said. Asked to assume the presidency, he said, he determined "that it was time for me to step up. This is a university that means so much to me that I felt I had to step up and really provide the kind of leadership that I thought we needed at this time."

Additional coverage of the forum is available in the stories linked below and through the tweets posted via @SCNewsDesk. Photos are available in the gallery above; click on the large image to open the gallery.

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