At Penn State, a new call for investigation

Posted: January 11, 2012

Even as Pennsylvania State University president Rodney Erickson began a statewide goodwill tour this week to address alumni, he faces a battle back on his main campus over whether the university is doing enough to investigate allegations that it missed or ignored signs that onetime coach Jerry Sandusky was abusing kids.

On Tuesday, a faculty leadership group agreed to place before the full faculty senate a motion that calls for Erickson to create a separate task force to investigate the conduct of the board of trustees, according to a source. The faculty senate also will consider a vote of no confidence in the trustees at its Jan. 24 meeting, the source said.

The task force would come on top of an investigation that the trustees launched in November after the grand jury report on Sandusky was released. That investigation is being headed by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, whom the senate council met with before taking its vote, the source said.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Erickson said he was not at the senate council's meeting and had not seen the recommendation.

"There will be a full discussion of any recommendation coming out of the senate council," he said during his first in-depth interview with The Inquirer since being named president in November after the ouster of Graham B. Spanier.

Erickson on Thursday night will face hundreds of alumni from the Philadelphia area at a filled-to-capacity meeting in King of Prussia, the second of three alumni meetings scheduled this week. The first was in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, at which angry alumni demanded answers. A third will be in New York City on Friday.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday, Erickson said Spanier briefed the trustees on the grand jury investigation of Sandusky in May or July, months before his arrest.

Erickson, who was provost at the time, said he did not attend the meeting and was not made aware that it had occurred. He said he did not know what was communicated.

Some faculty members are pushing for more scrutiny of the university's 32-member governing body. The investigation headed by Freeh is among a half-dozen by agencies and bodies, including the U.S. Department of Education, state legislators, and the NCAA.

While declining to take a position, Erickson noted that the trustees were looking at their own operations.

"The board is going through a period of introspection right now with respect to how they're organized and how they intersect with the administration," and looking at how "the whole process of governance can be made more effective," he said.

Erickson, 65, a longtime Penn State administrator, said he would make an opening statement at the alumni meeting at the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge, then would take questions.

"Knowing there are a lot of alumni who have concerns about what happened at Penn State. . . . I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for me to listen," he said of the event, for which alumni had to register in advance. (Registration is closed.)

He pledged to make the university more transparent and more public with information than it had ever been, although he stopped short of saying he would support changes in the Right to Know law that would hold Penn State to further scrutiny.

Penn State, he said, already turns over thousands of pages of budget information every year and will provide anything not prevented by law, contract language, or privacy rights. In the past, the university was reluctant to release some salary information, concerned that it could cause talented faculty to leave, he explained.

To underscore that commitment, he released terms of his own contract, which calls for him to earn a base pay of $515,000 a year, with opportunity for merit increases.

He also said he would step down in June 2014 so that the university could conduct a national search.

The next two-plus years, he said, will give him enough time to get the university moving forward and for a search to attract a strong group of candidates.

"When I agreed to serve as president, it was with the understanding that I would do my very best," he said, "but that I felt it was important that the university would go through a normal national search process to select the next president."

In addition to the investigation, the university is taking other steps to make sure there is no repeat of the Sandusky case, Erickson said. It has given information on reporting child abuse to faculty and staff, instituted a sexual assault hotline, donated to groups organized against sexual violence, and launched the Center for the Protection of Children at the Hershey Medical Center.

Erickson, a geography professor who has been at Penn State for more than 34 years and had served as provost since 1999, pledged to work to repair the university's image and refocus on its core educational mission. He intends to promote educational initiatives as intently as sports are highlighted, he said.

"We need to help restore the pride that Penn State alums and friends of the university have had for so long in our institution," he said.

Despite the onslaught of negative publicity, applications to Penn State are up by 2 percent to 3 percent, and donations are "tracking very close to last year," Erickson said. Some large donations, including a $10 million gift to the College of Engineering, have continued to come in, although he acknowledged some prospective major donors may be holding off.

"I think in the long run, they will make those commitments," he said.

While the Sandusky case continues to be an issue on campus "either at the surface or closely below the surface," Erickson said, better times are ahead: "I do think we have turned the corner."


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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