PITTSBURGH (AP) — Penn State University President Rodney Erickson was grilled Wednesday by alumni unhappy about how the school handled a child sex abuse scandal, the firing of longtime football coach Joe Paterno and a lack of transparency over the case.
Erickson is attempting to repair the school’s image with alumni, faculty, staff and students more than two months since former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest brought controversy, criticism and contemplation to the school.
Some alumni have criticized the university’s failure to conduct a complete investigation before firing Paterno and ousting Erickson’s predecessor, Graham Spanier, while decrying the leadership as secretive and slow to act.
Erickson, who was greeted by polite applause, told the crowd at the start of Wednesday night’s 1 1/2-hour meeting in Pittsburgh that openness and communication are his guiding principles. He said critics have accused the school of having problems in those areas recently and the school “will do better in the future.”
When he said he won’t allow the scandal to define the university nor “our outstanding football program,” the audience of about 600 people burst into applause.
But the first questioner called the treatment of Paterno “unconscionable,” drawing some applause and a few boos.
“We will certainly want to honor Joe as the future unfolds,” Erickson replied.
And there was passionate and prolonged applause for another person’s suggestion the board of trustees step down.
“I think the board will have to make those decisions,” Erickson replied to some groans from the crowd.
Erickson, who said an investigation into what the trustees knew and when is ongoing, declined to answer several questions, such as why the school fired Paterno when the coach had already announced that he would retire at the end of the season.
Asked for how many defendants Penn State is paying legal fees, Erickson replied that was “a difficult question to answer.” He said the school will start posting details of what the crisis has cost in legal and other fees next week.
The alumni meeting came as investigators re-interview current and former employees of Penn State’s athletic department as part of the case against the 67-year-old Sandusky, who’s charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky has denied the charges and remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
The alumni meeting in Pittsburgh is the first of three; the others are planned in coming days in suburban Philadelphia and New York. They are being sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association, which has received thousands of emails and phone calls about the scandal, association president Roger Williams said.
Two Penn State administrators are facing charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse. Gary Schultz, a former vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, have both denied the allegations and await trial.
Paterno, a legendary figure in sports, was fired and was replaced last week by New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. He has described the scandal as one of the great sorrows of his life and has said that in hindsight he wishes he had done more after allegations against Sandusky were raised.
Monica Thomas, who graduated with an architectural engineering degree in 1985 and has two children enrolled at Penn State, planned to attend the Pittsburgh town hall but had low expectations. She watched a similar event in State College for students and staff and was not impressed.
“I don’t think they really gave any answers,” Thomas said before the meeting. “But we shall see. You’re allowed to submit questions. They’re reaching out, but I don’t think it’s going to do much.”
Alumni want transparency, said Virginia A. Feinman, a television news assignment editor who plans to attend the New York forum.
“I hope that they listen to us,” said Feinman, a 2003 college graduate with a degree in English and journalism. “I hope that they come in with an open mind and actually listen to what the students and alumni have to say and truly hear why we are so upset. It has nothing to do with football. It has to do with the veil of secrecy that’s been operated under for what appears to be numerous years.”
Thomas and Feinman are members of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group that believes Paterno’s firing and the ousting of Spanier were mishandled. The organization hopes to back candidates to run for elected alumni seats on the Board of Trustees.
Trustee Marianne Alexander said it’s good that Erickson is providing an opportunity for alumni to weigh in on the scandal and give their opinion on the university’s response to it.
“It’s important for President Erickson to be able to hear what they have to say and also to explain his point of view,” said Alexander, president emerita of the Public Leadership Education Network and a resident of the Washington area. “So I think it’s very healthy. I’m glad he’s doing it.”
Trustee Linda B. Strumpf, a retired chief investment officer for the Helmsley Charitable Trust, said the focus at the meetings should be on plans for the future and not on past events such as Paterno’s firing.
“If people ask (Erickson) about it, he wasn’t in the room and wasn’t really involved,” said Strumpf, of New York. “They’re not going to get much out of him on that subject.”
Erickson said Tuesday he will step down when his contract ends in 2014.
The presiding judge in the Sandusky case said Wednesday that arguments would be heard in less than three months on pretrial issues. Trial is unlikely before autumn, a Sandusky lawyer said.
Current or former staffers of the football program are among those being interviewed anew by the attorney general’s office, according to a person who was familiar with the case but was not authorized to speak and talked on condition of anonymity. Plans for the interviews were first reported by The Patriot-News of Harrisburg.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office in Harrisburg declined to comment.
Sandusky attorney Karl Rominger, told by a reporter of the new interviews, said prosecutors would not go back to people they have already interviewed if they had nailed down the facts the first time around.
“They had years to take statements and get reliable evidence,” he said Wednesday. “Going back after the fact shows they did not gather, and may never be able to gather, the proof they seek. Further, it suggests to jurors that charges were brought on flawed or inadequate information in the first instance.”
Erickson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday that Spanier informed members of the board of trustees about the grand jury investigation months before he was charged in November. He said he did not know details of what was discussed when Spanier met with board members in May or July when Erickson was the university’s provost.
“I have no idea, because I wasn’t there,” the paper quoted Erickson as saying. “Nor did I know it was taking place.”
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