Published January 12, 2012
KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. – A plan designed to soothe angry Penn State University alumni may instead be sowing seeds of outrage.
School President Rodney Erickson appeared Thursday night at a hotel near Philadelphia for the second of three town hall events aimed at repairing the school's image in the wake of child molestation charges filed against former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, but the 650 alumni in attendance for the sometimes heated 90-minute session didn't receive him well.
Erickson laid the blame for the school's crisis on Sandusky.
"It grieves me very much when I hear people say 'the Penn State scandal.' This is not Penn State. This is 'the Sandusky scandal,'" he said. "We're not going to let what one individual did destroy the reputation of this university."
Alumnus Joseph Weiss, from the Class of 1988, challenged Erickson on that point. He said he needs more information from leaders at the school he loves so he can defend it to friends who ask him about the scandal.
"It's a shroud of secrecy still," Weiss said. "You said it's not a Penn State scandal, but it is, because perception is reality."
The vast majority of the questions from the alumni who turned out concerned legendary head coach Joe Paterno and the deep pain his firing has caused them. Several asked if Erickson plans to apologize to Paterno.
Erickson said it was not his place, since the board of trustees had fired the coach. He frequently reminded the audience that he reports to the board and can't tell its members what to do.
The response elicited groans and heckling. But several alumni thanked Erickson for holding the sessions, the third of which will be held Friday in New York, when board members have not.
"They seem to be hiding under a rock someplace," said John Lagana, a Class of '62 member from Chester Springs.
Many alumni called for the board members to resign or worried about their diplomas being tarnished. Several said they were astonished that more wasn't done to manage the crisis during a grand jury investigation. Two Penn State administrators are facing charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse.
Retired journalist Francine Cheeks, of Philadelphia, said she was surprised at the "unrelenting" focus on Paterno and his wife.
"Sue and Joe Paterno are not the primary victims in this whole scheme," said Cheeks, from the Class of '65. "It's children whose lives have been affected, and maybe destroyed, allegedly."
Former Penn State and pro football star Franco Harris held a competing event at the King of Prussia hotel after broad dissatisfaction with Erickson's first talk in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He criticized school leadership and said he found it difficult to believe all 32 board members wanted Paterno fired.
"The present leadership thinks it right what happened and how this was handled, and we all know it was wrong," he said.
Harris, who played for Paterno from 1968 to 1971 before helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls, castigated the board for showing "no courage" by firing the longtime coach. Harris stepped down as chairman of the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship foundation, after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl complained about the statements, but he was reinstated in December.
But even some critics say Erickson, who received some polite applause Thursday, shouldn't be getting so much blame for what many view as a floundering public relations effort amid a scandal that has brought controversy, criticism and contemplation to Happy Valley.
A 2002 alumnus, Ryan Bagwell, who's seeking a trustee seat in voting that will start next week, said Erickson "takes his marching orders from the Board of Trustees," which has "sent him out on this three-day spree."
"We want to hear from the trustees," Bagwell said. "We want them to explain why they made the decisions they did."
The chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Trustees released a statement Thursday evening responding to questions raised at the Pittsburgh meeting, including about the firing of Paterno. Paterno, they said, was removed in November instead of being allowed to retire after the season because of "extraordinary circumstances."
"The details of his retirement are being worked out and will be made public when they are finalized," said the statement from Chairman Steve Garban and Vice Chairman John Surma. "Generally speaking, the University intends to honor the terms of his employment contract and is treating him financially as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season."
Representatives for the Paterno family said Thursday the trustees' statement came as a surprise. Paterno's son Scott Paterno responded it was becoming apparent that the coach's firing Nov. 9, "with no notice or hearing, was not handled well."
The alumni meetings come 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, who maintains his innocence, remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
Paterno 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.
While many alumni are unhappy about the way the school fired Paterno, some said there were no good options in the situation.
"I don't think there was any graceful way to handle that problem," said John Burness, a former senior vice president of public affairs for Cornell University, Duke University and the University of Illinois.
Burness also said that people who are seeking quick changes to the Penn State Board of Trustees forget there's a reason it's difficult to make such changes.
"It isn't a simple thing to do, and it shouldn't be a simple thing to do," he said, since a key goal is for trustees to have a high degree of independence.
Associated Press writers Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh and Genaro C. Armas in State College contributed to this report.