After sharp debate, PSU faculty senate takes no action against trustees

Posted: January 25, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - As Pennsylvania State University began its three-day public mourning Tuesday of Joe Paterno's death, elsewhere on campus an academic debate raged on for more than an hour over whether faculty would formally criticize the board of trustees for its handling of the child-sex-abuse scandal that ultimately cost Paterno his coaching job.

In the end, the university's faculty senate by a large margin voted against taking a "no-confidence" vote against the trustees, after several professors said that such a move would only taint the university further at a time when the trustees were trying to make a new start.

But the wide-ranging debate left no doubt that the academic ranks at Pennsylvania's flagship university has been shaken to its core, with many members having serious concerns about their employer and how it handled the child-sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

"Several of us have tried to work with individuals on the board. That seems a more fruitful manner. . . . There's so much we don't know yet," Tramble T. Turner, an associate professor of English at Penn State Abington, said after the meeting in explaining why he spoke out against the no-confidence vote.

Turner noted that the board in recent days has reached out to the faculty senate, the leadership group for Penn State faculty at all campuses. Trustees were scheduled to attend the faculty senate meeting and answer questions, but canceled in deference to Paterno. Trustees will instead attend the senate's meeting in March.

Turner also noted that the trustees had acknowledged in media statements in the last week that "they could have handled things better."

A second measure, which called for the formation of an investigative committee to look into the conduct of the trustees in their handling of the scandal, also failed after a lengthy debate. Faculty considered a myriad of amendments to that motion. None passed.

Serious concerns

The message was clear, however, that faculty have serious concerns about the makeup of the internal investigative committee, headed by former FBI director and federal Judge Louis I. Freeh, that is looking into the scandal and how it unfolded. The case ultimately led to the university's firing of Paterno as head football coach and the forced resignation of former President Graham B. Spanier.

"The faculty have deep concerns about the university, how it operates and how it runs, and I thought this was a very . . . constructive debate," said President Rodney Erickson, who addressed the faculty in a 15-minute speech before the votes.

Some members argued in favor of a new investigation that would focus on the role of the trustees in the scandal. They said the internal investigation led by Freeh, which includes several members of the board of trustees, did not offer an "independent" and unbiased look at the issue.

"There are allegations that the governance of this university failed in some way," said Victor Brunsden, a mathematics professor from the Altoona campus. "It behooves somebody to investigate those allegations. ... We need to perform an investigation of this one aspect that is not within the purview of any of the other committees that are going to be nosing around Penn State.

"If this body is about shared governance, then we need, by God, to govern," he said loudly. "We need to investigate this."

Several investigations

Others, however, noted that there were several other investigations already under way, in addition to the university's internal task force. It makes sense, they said, to review the results of those investigations before launching another.

Keith Nelson, a psychology professor at the University Park campus, spoke in favor of an amendment that would have asked the university to broaden Freeh's committee so that it included a majority of people not affiliated with Penn State, including a cochair. The amendment also provided that those added should have expertise in areas such as child sexual abuse and sexual violence.

"I think there's a decent chance if we offer this in good spirit without a threat of investigation or in any way insulting their integrity . . . it might work," he said. "If they did this, you would have a majority who were independent of Penn State, which would mean that the investigation almost automatically would give more scrutiny to the board of trustees itself."

After the meeting, Nelson said that, even though the amendment was defeated, the debate that the trustees likely would read about in media coverage would show how much concern there was among the faculty about the makeup of the committee. The motion to create an independent investigation failed by a much slimmer margin than the no-confidence vote.

"What a lot of people at heart feel is that they could enhance the credibility ... if they appointed additional independent members, people who have no Penn State stock," he said, "and maybe experts in sexual abuse, maybe experts on institutional ethics."

In the end, the senate decided to look at appointing a special committee to review the university's governance and the structure of the board of trustees, which has members elected by alumni and agricultural groups and appointed by the governor and by the board itself.


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

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