Fallout from the Freeh report is high on Penn State trustees' agenda

Adam Taliaferro addresses fellow Penn State trustees. Chair Karen Peetz said: "We are committed to a more active, structured and robust oversight role."
Adam Taliaferro addresses fellow Penn State trustees. Chair Karen Peetz said: "We are committed to a more active, structured and robust oversight role." (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 15, 2012

SCRANTON - Cynthia Zujkowski arrived at the Penn State trustees' meeting Friday with one thought in mind: They should all quit. Now.

The spouse of a Pennsylvania State University graduate came to the tiny branch campus here wondering how a board with so many smart people could have failed so horribly and harmfully in its most basic function of oversight.

"I want the board to go away. It's that simple," she said as she took a seat among a dozen members of the public at a meeting held amid the release of the damning Freeh report on how child sex-abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky were mishandled and covered up. "I feel the board has handled this situation badly in many ways."

On Friday, Penn State's trustees approved a modest tuition increase, renamed a science building, and struggled to move forward by endorsing plans ultimately aimed at protecting children on its campuses and elsewhere.

"We are committed to a more active, structured and robust oversight role," board chair Karen Peetz said, lamenting "a collapse in leadership" at the school.

Officials said:

Board committees have been asked to review the sections of former FBI chief Louis Freeh's 267-page report that apply to their areas and to provide preliminary responses and plans at the next full board meeting in September.

The administration has established a team of university vice presidents charged with implementing changes recommended in the report. Peetz said she expected most if not all of the 119 recommendations to be instituted.

Details of the university's progress will be shared with the public as they become available, through the website www.progress.psu.edu.

On Friday, amid routine announcements and introductions, the review of grants, and release of research news, one issue hung over the meeting: the Freeh report, which described a "total disregard" among Penn State's leaders - former president Graham B. Spanier, football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz - for the safety and welfare of children sexually abused by former assistant coach Sandusky.

The board, in the dark about 1998 and 2001 allegations involving Sandusky, who was arrested in 2011, did not escape harsh judgment from Freeh. Despite their explicit duty to oversee the school and its officers, the trustees "failed to create an environment which held the university's most senior leaders accountable," the report said.

The timing was coincidental; the board's two-day meeting had been scheduled previously. But Freeh's findings helped bring the interested here Friday to the second day of the meeting.

Steve McDermott, of nearby Peckville, came wearing Penn State regalia - a "Big 10 Champions" T-shirt and blue-and-white sweat pants. He said he was curious to see the trustees in person and was bothered that "they criticize and vilify Paterno," whom they fired, but remain in place themselves.

Zujkowski said she, too, was upset about the board's handling of Paterno, who died in January of lung cancer at 85.

"I believe in my heart that Coach Paterno had partial information on this situation - and not what you'd call actionable information," she said.

Like others, she could not share her opinions with the board. Meeting regulations, posted prominently outside the room, forbade members of the public and press from speaking, presenting petitions, or holding up signs. But people will get that chance in the future; the board voted Friday to set aside time for public comment at its meetings.

The board also reduced the maximum term of its members from 15 to 12 years.

Peetz told the board she was grateful for the Freeh report, "however difficult it was to read," because it provided clarity about what had occurred at Penn State.

Plainly, she said, the school's leaders failed to protect children and to confront a predator, and the board failed to properly oversee its employees. She repeated what she had said on Thursday: that the board "accepts full responsibility for each of the failures that occurred."

"In cooperation with the administration, we will take action to ensure that an event like this never happens again in our university," she said.

University president Rodney Erickson told the board he had become more convinced that the school must reconsider its leadership culture.

"We are committed to addressing our failings," he said. "But this report also reinforces our commitment to helping to build greater awareness of the societal issue of child abuse."

Freeh's report offers a portrait of what occurred at the school but does not undo the pain of the victims, Erickson said. Penn State is determined to become a leader in the field of child abuse and mistreatment, developing conferences, partnerships, and research capabilities, he said.

"We realize we are still at the beginning of this process and we have many challenges ahead," Erickson said.

Much of his remarks was devoted to listing the school's latest accomplishments: 19 Penn Staters will compete in the London Olympics. A record number of graduates have signed up to join Teach for America. The alumni association has grown to nearly 170,000 - the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world, he said.

The first question to Erickson from a board member on Friday was not about the details or impact of the Freeh report. It was about the rising cost of higher education.

That subject, too, was on the agenda Friday. Trustees approved a tuition increase that averaged 2.4 percent for undergraduates this fall. Current tuition for in-state students at the main campus in State College is $15,124.

Later in the meeting, board member Kenneth Frazier delivered what he said he hoped would be the last report of his special-investigations task force.

He noted that some people had suggested the Freeh inquiry - which the trustees commissioned and has cost Penn State $6.5 million - would be a whitewash.

"I think those concerns should have been allayed by now," Frazier said, quoting newspaper editorials that complimented the investigation's honesty. "The report shows this university values the search for truth and is willing to engage in painful third-party criticism as well as self-evaluation."

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

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