Penn State board meets, still feels the heat

during a meeting of the Penn State board of trustees in Hershey. "We've made a good deal of progress in the last several weeks," he said in an interview. ALEX BRANDON / Associated Press
during a meeting of the Penn State board of trustees in Hershey. "We've made a good deal of progress in the last several weeks," he said in an interview. ALEX BRANDON / Associated Press (Penn State president Rodney Erickson speaks)
Posted: March 18, 2012

HERSHEY, Pa. - The new chairwoman of Pennsylvania State University's governing board on Friday recommitted the leadership to seek justice for victims of sexual abuse, and transparency and change in school operations.

But angry alumni came here carrying their own message for Karen Peetz and her colleagues: Step down. Now.

One group here at the board of trustees meeting wore blue-and-white T-shirts that spelled out "R-E-S-I-G-N." In interviews, they said the board that dismissed football coach Joe Paterno and president Graham B. Spanier for failure of leadership, amid allegations of child molestation by a former assistant coach, was itself responsible for gross failure of oversight.

"I'm outraged and embarrassed by the leadership of my university," said Wendy Silverwood, a 1982 graduate who lives in West Chester. "They had legal and moral responsibility to act when this occurred decades ago."

Silverwood, who wore the letter "I" in "resign," said she and others want answers from the board and "want to know where the leadership of the university was when this went down."

The meeting here in the state's sweetest city revealed the depth of emotion that continues to surround the sudden firing of Paterno in November. Board members have received hate mail and even death threats.

As the meeting came to order Friday, Peetz said she was "awestruck" by the commitment of students, faculty, and staff to the school, calling them "an example for others to follow." She credited school president Rodney Erickson as a leader who "took over at a time when we needed him most," and her fellow board members as people who selflessly donate hours of time to the school.

Former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers star Franco Harris sat with arms folded as routine presentations went on and on, at one point raising his hand to try to ask a question. He wasn't called on, and later left, trailed by reporters.

"This board doesn't have any leadership qualities," Harris said. "This board of trustees has hurt Penn State."

Harris said he had wanted to ask the question, "Which police department should Paterno have called?" The university regulations do not specify, he said, questioning how Paterno could then be held responsible for failing to notify police.

Harris was upset that by the time he left the meeting, more than an hour after it began, no one among the leadership had mentioned Paterno's death.

Reporters asked if he thought that was disrespectful.

"Understatement," he said.

The meeting, held on the campus of the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, capped what has been a hard and bitter winter for the trustees. They have been widely reviled for their handling of the child-molestation allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Yet it is the board and university leadership that is charged with leading the school forward.

The criticism is driving a large election for three alumni board seats, turning what is usually a quiet vote into a pitched battle. More than 80 alumni candidates are competing for three open seats. Last year, 11,000 ballots were cast out of a potential 190,000, but this year the voting is expected to be much heavier.

The school has incurred nearly $3.2 million in legal, consultant, and public-relations fees as a result of the molestation accusations. Included is $1.43 million for the school's internal investigation headed by Judge Louis Freeh. The university also incurred a $210,000 bill for the legal defense of suspended athletic director Tim Curley and former senior vice president Gary Schultz, both charged with perjury and failure to report an alleged 2002 incident of molestation.

On Friday, Erickson outlined the progress he said has been made in implementing Freeh's preliminary recommendations, which included the strengthening of policies involving minors, prompt reporting of sexual misconduct, administrative reforms, and improved security in the athletic department.

Erickson, in an interview, said he believed the school was recovering from the trauma of recent months.

"We've made a good deal of progress in the last several weeks," he said. "There's a sense among the students, faculty and staff that we're moving forward."

There will be bumps ahead, he predicted, as legal proceedings move forward.

This month, the board issued a statement that said what its members have said before: They fired Paterno because of his alleged failure to follow up on a report of sex abuse, which constituted "a failure of leadership." Spanier was fired for the same reason, the board said.

The Paterno family, whose leadership and fund-raising helped create the modern university, has been deeply wounded and disaffected. In a statement, the family said the board members were again trying "to deflect criticism of their leadership by trying to focus the blame on Joe Paterno."

"This is not fair to Joe's legacy; it is not consistent with the facts; and it does not serve the best interests of the University. The Board's latest statement reaffirms that they did not conduct a thorough investigation of their own and engaged in a rush to judgment."

Paterno's firing came shortly after Sandusky was indicted by a grand jury on multiple counts of child sex abuse in November. The coach died in January of lung cancer at age 85.

Peetz said after the meeting that she was aware of the continued calls for the board to step down, but that board regulations guarantee "built-in change" through elections and appointments.


Contact Jeff Gammage

at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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