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Prez: Penn St. better than a year ago

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has been strengthened by
improvements to compliance and governance in the year since former
assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested, the
university's president said Monday.

The past year has been difficult, but the university remains a
diverse institution focused on academics, research and service,
president Rodney Erickson said.

"Are we a better university? Yes, I think we are in terms of
everything that we've accomplished and put into place," he said.

Erickson spoke to The Associated Press as part of a series of
interviews with media outlets Monday, a year to the day that
Sandusky's arrest ignited one of the worst scandals in higher
education.

The NCAA, in levying strict sanctions over the Sandusky scandal,
slammed Penn State for a "football-first culture" that was caused
by a failure of institutional integrity. Those statements continue
to draw the ire of some alumni and fans who were irritated that
university leadership didn't challenge the assertions.

"That's what a lot of people, myself included, and certainly
the faculty senate and many members of the Penn State community,
have reacted to, is the painting of Penn State with a very, very
broad brush in a sense that there's one culture here that dominates
everything," Erickson said.

Neither the marquee football program nor any other aspect of
Penn State life dominates overall university culture, Erickson
said.

He cited recent NCAA data showing high graduation rates for
football players and other Penn State teams. The rates, Erickson
said, are an example of Penn State's dedication to academic and
athletic success, and "evidence of a culture of athletics that is
one that we can and should take great pride in, and we will
continue to believe in that principle -- that academics and
athletics can work together in a very, very positive way."

The soft-spoken Erickson, the former chief academic officer,
took over as president following Graham Spanier's departure under pressure
four days after Sandusky's arrest. Longtime coach Joe Paterno was
fired the same night, sparking a large student protest downtown.

In July, the NCAA cited a school-sanctioned investigation led by
former FBI director Louis Freeh in saying there was an
"unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a
culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than
the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values
of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human
decency." The school was hit with a four-year bowl ban, steep
scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine.

Sandusky, 68, was sentenced last month to at least 30 years in
prison after being convicted in June on dozens of criminal counts
covering allegations on and off campus. He has maintained his
innocence and is pursuing appeals.

The criminal investigation continues. Spanier is scheduled to be
arraigned Wednesday after the state attorney general's office said
the former president conspired with two other officials to conceal
allegations against Sandusky.

Many other challenges lie ahead.

Erickson said he was optimistic about the ongoing inquiries by
the Department of Education and the Middle States Commission on
Higher Education, an accrediting body. He had no update Monday on
the progress of the school's potential civil settlements with
Sandusky accusers.

He also expressed optimism that many of the challenges would be
behind the school once the board of trustees finds his replacement.

Erickson plans to step down when his current contract expires in
June 2014. Trustees are expected to release more details on the
search process at their next meeting later this month.

Among governance improvements, Erickson cited the hiring of a
full-time compliance officer for the Clery Act, a federal law that
requires reporting of certain crimes on campus; a search for an
athletics integrity officer; and changes to guidelines covering
minors on campus, including more background checks and staff
training.

Erickson said communication and oversight also have improved
among Penn State leadership.

Nevertheless, Erickson said the upcoming year could be "our
most challenging year in applications." He cited issues affecting
high school students and their families in general, such as
concerns about tuition, mounting student debt and getting a job
after college.

"The message to prospective students is that Penn State was a
great institution a year ago, and it's still a great academic
institution," he said. "If you come to Penn State, you're going
to continue to get a great education."