Penn State University President Rodney Erickson waits for the beginning of a town hall meeting with alumni in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012. 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. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. (AP) — 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, but the 650 alumni in attendance for the sometimes heated 90-minute session didn’t receive him well.
Erickson said it “grieves” him when people refer to “the Penn State scandal” because he thinks it centers on just one person — former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who’s accused of molesting boys, some on campus. He said he believes people should call it “the Sandusky scandal.”
Most of Thursday’s questions, however, involved concerns over the firing of Sandusky’s former boss, legendary football coach Joe Paterno. Erickson said he hasn’t had time to sit down with Paterno and his wife but hopes to when the scandal dies down.
Former Penn State and pro football star Franco Harris scheduled a competing event at the King of Prussia hotel after broad dissatisfaction with Erickson’s first talk in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. A third alumni meeting is scheduled for Friday in New York.
But even some critics say Erickson shouldn’t be getting all the blame for what many view as a floundering public relations effort. Erickson, who received polite applause Thursday, is trying to repair the school’s image more than two months after Sandusky’s arrest on sexual abuse charges 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.”
Two cousins attending Thursday night’s alumni meeting said they aren’t sure the current trustees are the right people to move the university forward.
John Cohrac, a Class of 1990 graduate from Pottstown, said he hoped to ask Erickson why there hasn’t been the transparency he promised. He and Mike Cohrac, a Class of 1999 graduate from Phoenixville, said they would still support the school’s football program but might withhold donations to the academic side until they get answers from the trustees about how they handled the sex abuse scandal.
Erickson has said openness and communication are his guiding principles and the school “will do better in the future.”
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 fired coach “strongly believed everyone involved is entitled to due process,” his son said in a statement, adding that his parents still were “unwavering in their loyalty and dedication to Penn State.”
At the Pittsburgh alumni meeting, the most passionate applause came after one questioner suggested that the entire board of trustees step down. Several others questioned why Penn State is still struggling to manage questions from the public and the media so many weeks after the crisis began.
“If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you shouldn’t expect different results,” said Tim King, vice president of the greater Pittsburgh alumni chapter.
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.
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 denied the allegations and await 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.
Harris, who played for Paterno from 1968 to 1971 before helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls, castigated the Board of Trustees 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.
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.