Can Penn State heal?

Posted: January 29, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Thousands of grieving Penn State supporters crowded the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday to say an emotional last goodbye to beloved football coach Joe Paterno - but Karen Peetz and Keith Masser, the chair and vice chair of the university board of trustees, weren't among them.

Instead, they watched a broadcast of the service from a seat across campus, in an office in the Old Main administration building.

That's what it's come to: The Pennsylvania State University board of trustees is so reviled by some alumni that its members could not attend the mass public tribute to their most popular employee, lest their mere presence possibly cause an ugly disturbance.

"I didn't want to take away from the Paterno family," Masser, 60, said in an interview a few hours after the service ended. Asked what it was like for him, a top university leader, to be unable to attend a memorial where the trustees would normally be front and center, tears seemed to well in his eyes.

"I don't want to go there," said Masser, whose father is dying of lung cancer, the same disease that killed Paterno.

But he wanted to be on the 45,000-student campus to bid Paterno goodbye, albeit from a remote location.

With Paterno buried, it's Masser and Peetz, among others, who now are charged with leading the university out of the wreckage - to somehow heal and fix the school in the aftermath of the sordid child-sexual-abuse allegations leveled against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the subsequent firing of Paterno, and the forced resignation of president Graham B. Spanier.

The situation is unprecedented, and the trustees face serious challenges. Among them:

A vocal, angry, and mobilized alumni-and-fan base that's working to seat new board members in a coming election and overhaul how the board is organized and run. Many are furious that Paterno was fired without a hearing or waiting for the outcome of investigations.

A faculty doubtful of the board's ability to conduct its own impartial inquiry into the scandal.

A Paterno family whose leadership and fund-raising helped create the university as it exists today - and who have been deeply wounded and disaffected by Paterno's abrupt dismissal in an infamous phone call.

A quiet discontent among child-abuse survivors and advocates who fear the focus on Paterno and football has minimized the brutality and damage suffered by Sandusky's alleged victims.

A media-weary student body that has been robbed of a normal school year and that lives in the shadow of Penn State's crisis.

Enrollment applications are up and donations are on target, university officials say. But the school's sterling reputation is tarnished, and a half-dozen current state and national investigations into Sandusky and how the university handled the matter could yield more damaging revelations for months and even years to come.

"It's the kind of tragedy that is going to have a very long tail for many years," said Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

Last week - as the university exhaled from three days of sorrowful ceremonies for Paterno - Masser and Peetz, new to their trustee leadership roles, began taking the first deliberate steps toward redemption and recovery. They held a series of low-key, face-to-face meetings with student, faculty, and alumni leaders, seeking to listen, share ideas, and mend frayed relations.

"We're trying to move forward with our commitment to transparency and accessibility," said Masser, a potato farmer from Schuylkill County who has been on the board since 2008 and who was appointed vice chair on Jan. 20. "We're listening and learning about what has to be done."

The university has promised to become a leader in child-sex-abuse prevention, and trustees earlier this month adopted a series of steps to improve safety on campus, including employee training on child-sex-abuse reporting, tighter restrictions at athletic facilities, and the commitment to hire an ethics officer.

They also will aim to emphasize the university's academics and research, which at times have been overshadowed by Penn State's powerhouse football program. They'll also examine the trustee board's governing structure.

It's a sound approach, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Penn State's 32-member board is large and unwieldy and its structure should be reconsidered, he said. And trustees are right to put the focus back on academics.

"If the board takes the reins on this, the university can come out stronger," he said.

Optimistic about Penn State's new leadership and steps to improve, Broad agreed: "This tragedy will not define the future of Penn State."

But there are many hurdles.

The faculty. At a meeting of the faculty senate last week, members opted against a no confidence vote in the board of trustees, but the lengthy debate showed the dissatisfaction among many in the ranks. The more than 200-member faculty senate represents the more than 6,000 full-time professors at Penn State campuses.

Some faculty members are concerned that the university's internal investigation, headed by Judge Louis Freeh, and including several trustees, will not offer an independent view of the problems that led to the scandal.

A segment of the faculty senate wanted the committee to include more members not affiliated with Penn State, but that motion also was defeated. A motion to request a separate investigation into trustees' conduct failed, too.

But that inaction should not be interpreted as the faculty's being satisfied with the work of the trustees, said professor Larry Cata Backer, faculty senate chair-elect.

"There are a significant number of faculty who are not convinced the board has been able to justify its own actions," said Backer, who will become chair in April. "If the board has a credibility problem with a significant portion of its most important stakeholder, that is something the board should take very seriously."

The faculty wants to be part of the solution, he said, "to make sure horrible actions like these are no longer conceivable, much less possible."

Masser and Peetz met with Dan Hagen, the current faculty senate president, on Thursday. Hagen did not return a call for comment.

The senate plans to look into the governance of the trustees.

Though still concerned, some faculty members were sympathetic to the trustees' situation.

"I'm not sure I could have done any better in their position, calling the shots in the first week after the revelations," said Anne Rose, a professor of history and religious studies. "It's been a wake-up call to everybody."

Paternos and their fans. The rift between the trustees and the Paterno family - and between the board and much of the college community - is deep, hurtful, and potentially enduring, complicated by Paterno's quick decline and death, which left no time for reconciliation. Many believe Paterno was sacrificed by a trustee board desperate to stanch the scandal.

On College Avenue, in the windows of his petite cupcake boutique, Donn Selkowitz posted a big, harsh message to the university leadership:

"Joe Pa . . . A special place in heaven," said the sign. "PSU Trustees . . . an eternal place in hell."

"Paterno's legacy was soiled by the board of trustees," said Selkowitz, a Penn State alum who left advertising to open ASTERISKndulge. "And that I can never forgive them for."

A poll released Thursday showed declining support for the trustees' decision to fire Paterno. The Seton Hall Sports national poll, which queried more than 1,000 people, said 42 percent of respondents supported the firing, down from 55 percent in November, according to the Associated Press.

Selkowitz calls Paterno - whom he knew only casually - the second-most-influential man in his life, behind his father, a model on which he built his values of commitment, service, and loyalty.

In interview after interview, Penn State graduates and supporters say they held Paterno largely blameless in the child-sex scandal, their bitterness and anger focused on the trustees. Nike chairman Phil Knight received a standing ovation at Thursday's memorial when he said, "If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno."

"It's terrible," Anna Mae Leyburn said.

"Gutless," said her husband, Bob Leyburn.

Both 1950s graduates drove to State College from Asbury, N.J., to attend one of the public viewings and say goodbye.

Despite their fury toward the board, however, both planned to continue to donate to the school, mentally separating the leadership from the school. Selkowitz said the same - that withholding his support would only hurt a great university.

What could the board do to make things right?

Selkowitz said he didn't want the board members to resign, didn't want them kicked out of office or publicly pilloried. He wants one thing: an apology.

"Get up to a microphone and say, 'In a time of crisis, the board of trustees made a misguided rush to judgment, and we owe an apology to Joe Paterno, his family, and the university.' "

Paterno died last Sunday at 85, just 65 days after his son said he had been diagnosed with treatable lung cancer. The rapid succession of events left no time for passions to settle or amends to be made.

Scholarships to honor Paterno are being considered. A growing number of alumni are calling for the renaming of Beaver Stadium in memory of Paterno.

Masser said the trustees intended to honor Paterno and would seek to open lines of communication with the Paterno family for input.

"I'm hoping there's a time when we can communicate," Masser said. But acknowledging the magnitude of the rift, he said: "It might take until the terms expire of all the trustees."

The victims. The trustees also need to deal with another constituent base - victims of child sexual abuse and those who treat them.

On Tuesday night as part of the university's continuing commitment to focus on child sexual abuse, the law school held a forum that drew more than 100 people - small compared with the thousands who were nearby at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center for day one of Paterno's viewing.

The university must put the focus on the children, panelist Andrea Taroli, a physician at Penn State's Hershey Medical Center, told the audience.

"The overwhelming feeling and outpouring of emotion is not related to the little boy left in the shower," Taroli said in an interview after the forum. "Nobody's mourning the boy who was in the shower and left there. I think it's just horrible."

Taroli was referring to the 2002 eyewitness account by former assistant coach Mike McQueary, then a graduate student, who said he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in a campus shower in 2002. McQueary reported the matter to Paterno, who in turn told his superiors. That was key in the trustees' decision to fire Paterno - they said that although he followed the law, he did not go far enough and report the matter to police.

For the lack of focus on child victims, Taroli blamed a culture that looks the other way when such heinous acts are committed rather than face the devastating truth. The university community, she said, "is a macrocosm of the dysfunctional family that child abuse occurs in."

For former victims, it brings back haunting memories.

Matt Bodenschatz, a 38-year-old English student at Penn State and child-sex-abuse survivor, said he had been disheartened by the campus reaction to the events of the last few months.

"Even before Paterno died, the impetus was on almost anything else but these kids," said Bodenschatz, who said he was abused by a relative as a young boy. "I heard, 'Of course we care about the kids, but, oh, my poor campus, or, oh, poor Joe Paterno.' "

At the panel, experts noted that one in four women and one in six men report having suffered child sexual abuse. Bodenschatz said that means many Penn State students likely have been reliving their own abuse as the issue keeps the university in the media spotlight.

Dennis Heitzmann, university director of counseling and psychological services, said some abuse survivors had come to the center for help since the Sandusky scandal broke.

"They have been shaken by this," he said, "and we've made our resources available to them."

Heitzmann said some good would come of the tragedy, pointing out that the university was budgeting money for abuse prevention and establishing a center to address the problem, among other steps.

"What I've witnessed of late is the university stepping up," he said.

A sterling reputation. But will the university's all-out scramble be enough to shore up the image of Pennsylvania's highly regarded flagship university? The school has taken a hit of epic proportions - at least that's the way many within and outside the school see it.

"The reputation of Pennsylvania State University has been publicly and seriously defiled," said Anthony Ambrose, a medical college physician, speaking on the floor of the faculty senate meeting last week.

Efforts to repair the damage will be undertaken as the university undergoes intense scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education, the NCAA, the state attorney general, the state legislature, and the Middle States Association, all engaged in various investigations and reviews of the university's actions in the Sandusky case. That's in addition to the school's own internal investigation.

University president Rodney Erickson reported earlier this month that applications to the school were up 3 percent and donations were on target, but that it was too soon to know the full impact of the scandal. Erickson and the board of trustees have hired a high-powered Washington legal and media strategist group to help with public relations.

The university must sort out the facts and accept responsibility for whatever failings are uncovered, said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. He criticized Erickson's comments of the last few weeks that the Sandusky case should not be viewed as a "Penn State scandal."

"There is a huge Penn State scandal," he said, citing the firing and resignation of four top officials. The university, he said, remains in denial if it can't face that.

Nassirian said that, sadly, Paterno's death may make it easier for the university to heal while still under the microscope of investigation. "It allows everybody to pay appropriate respect to his memory," he said, "and they do not have to drag a legend through this process anymore."

The students. At the HUB, a university building with food courts and recreation rooms, life was returning to normal on Friday, with the media gone and Paterno buried.

Students were shoveling down their lunch while cramming for tests, shooting pool, and immersing themselves in activities such as fund-raising for Thon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which culminates in a dance marathon to benefit pediatric cancer.

But students - many of them media-weary and reluctant to talk - continue to mourn the loss of Paterno and the impact on their school.

Robertina Castano, 21, a junior from Kennett Square, said she was waiting for the day when she tells people where she goes to school and the first thing they ask her about is not the scandal. "They talk about the scandal instead of the good reputation that the university has," she said. "I feel sad."

Allison Montgomery, 20, a sophomore from Blue Bell, was working on fund-raising for Thon, which will be held in less than three weeks. A big Paterno fan and second-generation Penn Stater, she wore a T-shirt in honor of the man: "Not Just a Coach: Philanthropist. Mentor. Leader. Icon and Legend," with a drawing of Paterno-style eyeglasses.

She pointed out that the Paternos were continuing to raise money for Thon despite the fractured relationship with university leadership.

"This whole week has felt like watching a movie," said Montgomery, who attended the Paterno memorial. "It's heartbreaking, tragic."

Asked what it would take to heal the wounds, Montgomery said: "Time. It's going to take time."

To honor Paterno, the university turned on the bright lights at Beaver Stadium every night last week from Sunday, when he died, to Thursday, the day of the memorial service. On Friday night, the stadium was dark.


For videos, photo galleries, and complete coverage of the life and death of Joe Paterno, go to www.philly.com/paterno


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

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