[Bumped, a very good account of last night's event in King of Prussia. If anyone attended the Anthony Lubrano / Franco Harris event last night, details would also be appreciated. - C.G.]
I attended the Town Hall meeting hosted by President Rodney Erickson this evening, and I wanted to share my impressions of the event for those who could not attend.
At a high level, the common themes were what you would expect: the firing of Joe Paterno and what plans were in place to try to make things right with the Paterno family, and the actions of the Board of Trustees and what is being done to address those actions. Erickson came off as honest for the most part; he may not have provided all the detail we wanted and he may have ducked a few questions a bit, but his answers did not feel like lies.
The main complaint I had coming away from the night regarded the handling of questions related to the actions of the Board. Specifically, Erickson was asked about the decision-making process in the Paterno's firing; his answer was that he could not comment on it because he was not in the meeting and that it was a question for the Board. He never provided any real information about how we can ask questions of the Board, nor did anyone ask him that follow-up question.
I've included a question-by-question synopsis here; some of the questions are repeats, but it covers everything asked in the order it was asked. I apologize for the length.
Erickson was introduced and walked out to applause - not overwhelming, but polite. He spoke for 5-10 minutes, stating that he accepted the presidency with a plan for "openness and communication," and that his hope for tonight was to provide answers and to listen.
He was first asked why he said "yes" when offered the job by the Board of Trustees. Erickson said he has spent the last 34 years trying to build "Penn State into an academic powerhouse." He wants to be able to show that it is a great academic and athletic university, and he felt it owed it to Penn State to try to help.
A member of the crowd then referred to Paterno as the most important Penn Stater ever. This was met by a loud applause. He asked what plans were in place to "make things right" for the Paterno family. Erickson acknowledged the importance of both Joe and Sue to Penn State, both academically and athletically. He wants to find a way to honor them appropriately but has not yet been able to spend any time finding that way.
Erickson was asked why there was a rush to judgment in November, but we are asked to be patient with the Board of Trustees now. Erickson stated that on November 10 or 11, seven of the top 20 searched terms on the Internet were related to Penn State. It was "virtually impossible" to get any positive messages out, and he said that it will be a task for all of us to get positive messages out to our peers. This did not answer the question asked.
When asked what Penn State was doing to prepare for the media onslaught when the Sandusky trial begins, he stated that he is upset that the media is referring to this as a "Penn State scandal." This scandal is not Penn State, he said, which was met with applause. Penn State is the students and alumni all around the world. He did not directly address the question about the university's preparation for the media when the Sandusky trial begins.
Anthony Lubrano was then given a microphone and was met by a collective gasp when he stated who he was. He said he spoke with Joe Paterno Tuesday and, in an unfortunate Paterno impression, said that Joe told him, "This is not about me; this is about our school." Lubrano very directly asked Erickson why no one from the administration has called Coach Paterno since the firing and if Erickson's hiring truly reflected the administration's stated goal of transparency. Erickson stated that he wants the university to conduct a national presidential search, which is why he will end his term on June 30, 2014; he felt it would have been difficult to conduct a national search for a new president in November. He then stated that he "fully intends to sit with Joe and Sue when (he) has a few minutes and it's convenient to them."
An audience member expressed concern over the appearance of bias in having a colleague of Gov. Corbett's on the investigation committee. Erickson said that he had no reason to expect anything but objectivity, but they brought in Judge Louis Freeh as an independent investigator. The mandate given to Freeh is to investigate and make his report public; Erickson said the report will not be sanitized before publication.
Erickson was then asked a question related to the actions of the Board of Trustees. The questioner stated the handling of things was a failure in media relations, public relations, and crisis management, asking how it was possible for so many people to fail us. She asked alumni to demand all Board members step down, which was met by the loudest applause of the night, and asked Erickson's opinion on the Board's composition. The president stated that there is obviously a lot of emotion directed at the Board, but questions for them were for the Board itself to answer. He was not a member of the Board in early November, he said, so he could not comment on their deliberations. He then asked the crowd not to rush to judgment regarding the Board of Trustees, which was the only statement of the night that resulted in outright jeering.
Two more questions were asked about the actions and composition of the Board, which Erickson said needed to be addressed by the Board itself. He then said that the Board has 32 members - nine elected by alumni, nine selected by agricultural societies, six selected by business sectors, 6 appointed by the governor, and other positions (including ex-officio members) selected elsewhere. Out of the 194,000 alumni eligible to vote in the last election, only 11,000 people voted; Erickson encouraged alumni to exercise their voting right this year and in the future.
An alumnus asked what Erickson planned to do to restore independence to the office of the president so that the president and Board did not just rubber-stamp the others positions. The president said that he and the Board will undoubtedly have disagreements, but he hopes to be able to work with them to reach consensus on issues.
A pointed question was asked regarding the lack of meeting minutes made available by the Board of Trustees for their November 9 meeting and why there is no mention in the meeting minutes from the November 11 emergency meeting about the creation of investigating committees. He said, "When will we see transparency and not just hear about it?" Erickson side-stepped the question about the meeting minutes, saying he was not aware of that. He did say examples of actual transparency are in the release of his and Coach Bill O'Brien's contract terms earlier this week, as well as more than 3,000 pages of budget information available online. The information is out there, he said; we were encouraged to look for it.
Erickson was asked if he planned to apologize to Paterno, and he said that he would need to speak to the Board of Trustees about that because it was the Board that decided to fire Paterno.
An audience member asked how he is supposed to speak positively about Penn State when the only news out there is bad news. Erickson stated that we should stress the academics and athletics of Penn State, that our student-athletes consistently post high graduation rates. "We're not going to apologize for being a great university," he said. "We're not going to let what one individual did destroy this great university."
An alumna asked about the posting by Ben Novak last week (http://www.bennovak.net/2012/01/reflections-of-a-former-trustee/), asking if Erickson was willing to lead an effort for a shared power structure between the Board of Trustees, Faculty Senate, the President, and Student Government. Erickson said he expected to have "significant dialogue" with faculty and students and that he plans on holding open student forums every semester. He then moved on to the next question without providing an answer to the question asked.
In an effort to lighten the mood, the moderator then asked Erickson what ice cream flavor he thinks will most accurately describe the next two years. After someone yelled "Peachy Paterno," Erickson said he doubts anyone will ever name a flavor after him, and that he thinks the flavor would be "something with chocolate."
An alumnus asked who will pay for Paterno's legal bills since he was "thrown under the bus." Erickson said that if Paterno faces legal actions stemming from anything related to the university, Paterno's bills will be paid for by the university.
Despite the fact Erickson continually said this is a Sandusky scandal and not a Penn State scandal, he was asked if he thinks the "rapidity of the Paterno and Spanier firings scream ‘Penn State scandal'." He that because the investigation was in another county and dealt with an employee who had retired 12 years prior, there was no expectation among the administration that the investigation would be targeted at Penn State. He said the Board will have to answer for its decisions; the Board felt it needed to take decisive action under the circumstances and it made the decision based on the information it had.
Erickson was asked how alumni can get involved by more than just donating. He asked that we share positive stories of Penn State. The education at Penn State has not changed and it is "still world-class." Admissions applications continue to track 3-4 percent above last year's record number, and it is important for prospective students to understand the value of a Penn State education. Additionally, he asked us to continue supporting Penn Staters by helping them obtain internships and jobs, and the number of companies for the Spring Career Fair is up 11 percent from last year. One company went as far as to say it felt the scandal will make Penn State graduates even more attractive because students had to go through this.
Another question was asked about the Board: why was no statement made when the story broke and why was the first statement to fire Paterno and Spanier? Erickson again said that the Board would need to answer that question.
An alumnus asked Erickson to show "true leadership" by asking for a change in how Board members are selected and telling them, "Let's do things differently." He answered by saying the University Charter bestows all responsibility in all aspects of university business upon the Board. The Board then delegates some responsibilities, such as having the faculty set the curriculum. Erickson then said, "They are fundamentally responsible for running the university. I'm not their boss; they are my boss." When pressed, he added the discussion about Board structure and operation are and will be taking place, and that he will voice his opinion. He did not state what his opinion is.
An audience member said he felt like the university's honesty and code of ethics have been violated. Erickson said he wants to establish a culture where no one is afraid to report if they have seen or if they suspect something has occurred. He wants the community to feel free and protected to make information known.
Erickson mentioned that the university donated $1.5 million of its bowl money to two child sexual abuse charities. He was asked what impact those donations would have on the football budget. There will be an impact, he said, but he didn't want to take money from donations intended for other purposes. He also said legal fees will not be paid via taxpayer, donor, or tuition money; the university has insurance against legal action that it plans to use.
The next question received three separate rounds of applause. Erickson was told that it is important that the Board of Trustees attend these events with him and was asked if they would step up and face questions. He was also asked if he would tell the Board Chairman that he should be present at future events; he answered with a simple "yes."
A questioner said he felt the Board of Trustees' actions made Paterno a scapegoat and asked Erickson to say that Penn State was wrong in that decision. Erickson said the firing was a Board decision, and when pressed, said that he did support that decision.
Another question was asked regarding why the Board was not providing honest answers to our questions. Erickson said that investigations are ongoing and that those investigations, combined with the fact he does not have all the answers, prevent him from answering every question he is asked. He did not address the Board's answers to questions.
Erickson was asked how a new president and athletic director will be named. He indicated that there will be a national search committee that will draft a job description, identify a pool of candidates, narrow down that pool, interview candidates, and make a selection. He did not know who will chair the search committees.
Erickson was asked if he would be our liaison and ask the Board why there are no meeting minutes posted from the November 9 meeting. He said that he would.
An alumna stated her concern that Harrisburg has made Penn State a "quasi-public" school by cutting its funding. She asked what as being done to ensure that the scandal does not influence Harrisburg's opinion of Penn State or its actions toward us. Erickson stated that he has not found any hostility toward Penn State in his meetings with legislators. He conceded that the state is in a difficult budget situation, and that appropriation cuts "really are a shared problem in many ways."
The final question asked if Penn State has accepted any fewer students compared to last year; Erickson said the difference was in the neighborhood of 10 students.
Erickson closed the night by telling the crowd that they shared a lot of the same questions as the group in Pittsburgh Wednesday night. He said Penn State is moving ahead, and students are moving ahead; in speaking to them, he said they came back from Winter Break ready to move on. "This is a great university," he said. "We and you need to do everything we can to show that we are still Penn State."