Alumni Ask Questions; President Erickson Answers
Rodney Erickson promised “openness and communication.” He promised them twice, in fact, during his opening statement Wednesday night at a town hall meeting with alumni in Pittsburgh. He called those values his “guiding principles and watchwords,” ones he learned growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, and he said they’ve served him well during his career in higher education, the past 34 years at Penn State and the past nine weeks as the University’s president.
“I know there’s a perception that we at Penn State have not always done as well as we could to be open, to respond to questions and to be as transparent as possible with all of our constituencies—alumni, faculty, staff, our students, and the public and the media who report on our great university,” he said. “We will do better in the future based on those guiding principles of openness and communication that I just stated. I’m here this evening to begin to demonstrate these values.”
He promised, also, to listen to whatever the more than 600 alumni who attended the town hall had to say about the Sandusky scandal and its aftermath. (And anything else.) Those alumni took Erickson at his word. They were polite, but they didn’t hold back.
The first speaker introduced herself by saying that she’d brought her baby daughter and son home from the hospital in Penn State sleepers “because of our pride in the Penn State football program—not because of their winning, but because of the integrity that Joe Paterno instilled in that program.” Then she added, “What you did to Coach Paterno is unconscionable.”
The second speaker didn’t mince words, either. “With all due respect, Dr. Erickson, the grand jury is designed to come with indictments. How could the board (of trustees) allow these people to go in unprepared and poorly represented, and how could the board have not had a crisis plan?”
Next came a question from email, read by WPSU’s Patty Satalia, who moderated the 90-minute event, which was sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association. “What, if any, are the plans the realign the makeup of the Board of Trustees to give alumni and students more of a voice on the board? It seems to me that the Board of Trustees should step down and a new one created—”
Satalia couldn’t even finish the question. Loud, sustained applause broke out for about 30 seconds, and the unnamed emailer got a standing ovation.
Those three questions summed up the evening. It’s clear that Pittsburgh-area alumni are angry at how Paterno was treated (one person suggested that the trustees need to apologize personally to Paterno and allow him to retire), angry that Penn State’s crisis communicators didn’t do a better job countering the dominant media narrative that condemned the entire university, and even angrier at the behavior of the Board of Trustees.
Erickson answered that first of many questions about the trustees by saying that any change in the makeup of the board would have to be decided by the board itself. (Penn State’s Board of Trustees has 32 members—nine elected by alumni, six appointed by the governor, six delegates from agricultural societies, and six representatives from business and industry who are elected by the trustees. There are also five ex-officio members, including the governor.) The alumni didn’t love that answer, but Erickson continued with an explanation.
“You have, as alumni, the opportunity to vote,” Erickson said. “And there are places where you can make your wishes felt, even without change. … Any change that’s going to take place in a fairly orderly fashion, it’s a process of changing the bylaws and the charter and probably going through the Court of Common Pleas. That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But certainly you can and should—this is a democracy, and this is your alma mater.”
He received many questions about Paterno but did not explain why the longtime coach was fired. He did say, “I expect the board will address that.”
I’ve heard Erickson speak several times since the crisis—at the news conference after the Nebraska game, to Sam Richards’ sociology class, during the town hall for students. He’s always calm, and he doesn’t raise his voice. Audiences seem to respond to that. Even many alumni who criticized him Wednesday night thanked him for coming—or, as one alum put it, “having the guts to do an event like this—it shows a lot of fortitude on your part.”
Some of what Erickson said Wednesday night I’d heard before. His desire for Penn Staters to not let the scandal define them. His praise of what Joe and Sue Paterno have done for Penn State and the need, at some point, to honor them. His assurances that tuition dollars will not be used to pay for legal fees, many of which will be covered by insurance.
Other information was new.
He said the University paid $360,000 to a crisis communication firm in the month of November, the peak month, and that more cost information will be released next week. He and other senior administrators will hold a town hall with students every semester. And he said that former president Graham Spanier had briefed the trustees that there was an investigation by the attorney general involving “a retired member of the Penn State staff,” and that some Penn State employees were called to testify. But no one knew, he said, the details revealed in the grand jury presentation.
Erickson also said that the trustees’ special investigations task force, headed by Louis Freeh, expects to finish its work by the end of the spring semester, and that the report will be released. He added, “It will not be sanitized.”
Personally, I liked these words from Erickson, also from his opening statement: “Our values in this university do not begin with what is lawful or unlawful. They begin with what is moral and immoral. The right thing to do vs. the wrong thing to do. That distinction will be emphasized in my administration.”
There are two more town halls—Thursday evening in Philadelphia, and Friday evening in New York City. You can follow along (and catch up on real-time reaction to the Pittsburgh event) at the hashtag #psudialog. The New York meeting will be streamed live from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday—watch by clicking here.
As always, we’re interested in your perspectives—about the town hall specifically and the issues in general. Let us know what you’re thinking in the comments.
Lori Shontz, senior editor