And that was one thing frustrated graduates could applaud.
Erickson faced about 300 alums in a packed hotel ballroom in lower Manhattan on Friday night, the last stop on a road trip intended to calm anger about how the university has dealt with a child sex abuse scandal involving longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Instead, the sessions have triggered more anguish and another round of introspection for the people who love the school and its football program.
The questions Friday were similar to the previous two nights in Pittsburgh and outside Philadelphia. A teary-eyed woman asked: “How do you explain the lack of due process for Joe Paterno?” That drew sustained if not unanimous applause. The largest ovations came for queries criticizing the Board of Trustees and the school’s public relations efforts.
“I can assure you that as I go back to the Penn State campus, I will think deeply about the messages you have provided me,” Erickson said in his closing remarks. “I have listened well. I listen and I learn. I hope you all keep that faith that we will move forward.”
The school has yet to start making plans on how to honor Paterno, Erickson said earlier, though he promised again that a tribute was coming. As in previous meetings, the president spent several minutes listing the university’s many accomplishments in academics and athletics. But that was little solace to alumni distressed by the way the scandal has overshadowed all that.
The perceived lack of communication by trustees in the two months since Paterno’s firing Nov. 9 has roiled many graduates.
“Honestly, I feel like I was given the company line,” Virginia Alvarez, a lawyer from the Class of 1997 who asked the question about due process, said afterward. “I don’t feel like we have the answers. I think the people who need to call into question are the Board of Trustees. Show us the minutes of those meetings.”
Erickson emphasized that the trustees are his bosses, and not the other way around. He explained how the university’s land-grant history resulted in the composition of the board, which includes nine of 32 trustees elected by alumni. The charter would have to be altered to change that, he said.
Appointed president after the scandal also cost Graham Spanier his job, Erickson plans to retire in 2014.
He reiterated that he supported the trustees’ decision to fire Paterno.
“There comes a time to look at more than legal issues and look at the ability to lead, and I think at that point ability to lead was compromised,” he said. “That in no way should reflect my feelings about the wonderful things Joe has contributed over the years.”
Erickson offered his best wishes to Paterno, saying he was “very sad” to hear the Hall of Famer was readmitted to the hospital Friday with complications from his treatment for lung cancer.
Matt Kalafat, Class of 1991, made a long statement saying that although he long loved Penn State’s coach and probably still did, “Joe Paterno is not a victim.” That drew little applause.
Erickson heard several questions asking why the university’s PR response wasn’t better prepared since trustees were aware Sandusky was being investigated.
“I think most people didn’t really see the direct relationship to the university; there was no sense that I’m aware of that anyone at Penn State was targeted as part of that,” he said. “Time passed. I suppose the assumption was there wasn’t anything there.”
The 67-year-old Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He maintains his innocence and remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial. A charity he founded called The Second Mile, through which he met many of his alleged victims, said Friday it was selling a 60-acre property where it had been building an educational center.
Two Penn State administrators are facing charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse. Gary Schultz, a former vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, have denied the allegations and await trial.
Paterno in early 2002 passed along a report of alleged sex abuse by Sandusky to his bosses but did not notify police. Paterno is not a target of the criminal investigation, but his lack of further action spurred the calls for his firing.
In terms of public relations, Penn State has continuously been playing catch-up, said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal for the New York-based crisis management firm, Group Gordon.
The school, he said, has two constituencies: the public at large, which is critical to maintaining Penn State’s national brand, and the community of students, alumni and other supporters, who are important from a community-building and fundraising perspective.
“In order to get past the problem, you have to figure out who you’re talking to, who your constituencies are, and so I don’t think the board has figured it out,” Robinson-Leon said.
Erickson said he had been in contact with Larry Foster, an alumnus who directed Johnson & Johnson’s public relations response to the Tylenol crises in 1982 and 1986.
The top two leaders of the trustees released a statement Thursday evening responding to alumni questions. Paterno, they said, was removed in November instead of being allowed to retire after the season because of “extraordinary circumstances.”
“The details of his retirement are being worked out and will be made public when they are finalized,” said the statement from Chairman Steve Garban and Vice Chairman John Surma. “Generally speaking, the University intends to honor the terms of his employment contract and is treating him financially as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season.”
Robinson-Leon said it appears to be important from the Penn State community’s perspective that the trustees take full responsibility for their decisions.
“They were trying to move toward owning that decision, but you can’t do it halfway,” he said. “At some point, the leadership of the board has to get out there and face the critics.”