Penn St. trustees open meeting, take heat

Board hears complaints that the university yielded too easily to the Freeh report on the Jerry Sandusky case.

Posted: September 16, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Opening up the first-ever public-comment session at Pennsylvania State University's board of trustees meeting Friday, Patty Kirschner got straight to the point.

Kirschner, a Penn State donor, wanted to know if trustees planned to vet the internal investigation compiled by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. That report implicated longtime football coach Joe Paterno and former president Graham B. Spanier, along with two university officials who were charged in the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal, and recommended a host of universitywide changes.

"The Freeh report has been widely criticized by students, alumni, faculty, and journalists," she said. "The claim is that it is faulty in its process, facts, and conclusions. . . . Why have you moved forward with implementing its recommendations without determining its validity?"

Board president Karen Peetz said there was no plan for a detailed review, prompting groans and chuckles from the audience. When the board's vice chairman, Keith Masser, added that officials would seek input on the recommendations, Kirschner told him he was not answering her question.

She pressed them several times on why they were not reviewing the report's accuracy, before shouting over Peetz that the report was "based on false information."

The seven speakers - who were held strictly to their three-minute time limits, drawing boos from the standing-room-only crowd - generally had harsh words for the university trustees, who are still navigating the aftermath of the indictment and later conviction of Sandusky, a former assistant football coach.

The meeting included the announcement that a search for a new university president will begin in November, with details to be announced at that time. Former provost Rodney Erickson has served as president since Spanier's ouster in November.

Trustees also tabled an effort to rename a campus child-care center that was named last year for former university vice president Gary Schultz. The ex-administrator was charged, along with former athletic director Tim Curley, with failing to report an incident of child abuse and of lying to the grand jury investigating Sandusky.

The public-comment period implemented Friday is among the changes that university trustees and officials have incorporated in the 10 months since the scandal broke. Students, faculty, and alumni have been added to board committees, and the scope of those panels has expanded. Several new faces are on the 32-member board, and the search for a new compliance officer is nearly complete.

Peetz said after the meeting that trustees found that other schools include a similar period during their board meetings and thought it was part of their responsibility as a public university.

But she also noted that only eight people signed up for the 10 speaking slots - one could not attend Friday's meeting - and she chastised the speakers for leaving the hotel ballroom midway through the three-hour session.

During the discussion about renaming the child-care center, a letter from Schultz's attorney, Thomas Farrell, was read aloud. He asked the trustees to wait on taking action so as not to influence his client's trial, set to begin in January. Several trustees said they agreed that changing the center's name now would be premature.

Some in attendance said afterward that they believed that delaying any name change was the right decision. Cheryl Grube, the mother of a Penn State freshman, wore a button from Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, the alumni group that will hold a rally Saturday in front of Old Main seeking resignations from the board of trustees.

"Why are they doing these knee-jerk reactions, like wanting to change the name of the center?" asked Grube, who said she would be at the rally. "They don't question spending $6.5 million for a report or what's in it, but they question [renaming the center]" and the spending on several capital projects discussed Friday.

Cecelia Masella, a Penn State alumna, criticized what she called discrepancies in public comments on whether the NCAA had been considering shutting down Penn State's football program as part of its sanctions.

"This board wants the general public to move forward, but I am here to tell you that's not going to happen, because the stakes are too high and the injustices are too numerous," Masella told the trustees. "There are many thousands of individuals just like myself who cannot heal until truth triumphs."

Erickson told her that he stood by his public comments that the university faced the so-called death penalty for its football program, and that given that alternative, he agreed to the $60 million in sanctions.

"I still believe that was the best course of action given what we were faced with," he said.

Officials shut down an attempt by former Nittany Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, who is scheduled to speak at Saturday's rally, to add himself to Friday's list of speakers. He asked to speak in place of the person who could not attend, and when he did not abide by requests to step aside, the microphone was shut off.

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