PITTSBURGH —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.”