Memos: Officials focused on image

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Penn State's board of trustees and president focused on repairing the school's tarnished image and braced for financial backlash in the immediate aftermath of the child sex-abuse scandal that erupted two months ago, going so far as to recommend reminding any outraged donors that they wouldn't get their money back, according to internal memos obtained by The Associated Press.

Four memos sent Nov. 14-18 and released to the AP this week describe the school's scrambling response less than two weeks after former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child molestation charges. Two Penn State administrators also were charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to properly report suspected child abuse.

In the first memo, issued nine days after the charges were filed, new school president Rodney Erickson told the 47-member Board of Trustees that the public relations teams of the university and the athletic department had met to "align our messages" and that he had received positive feedback after two network television interviews.

"This is another indication that we are taking control of the narrative of our story," Erickson wrote.

The scandal led to the ouster of Graham Spanier, Erickson's predecessor, and the firing of venerable football coach Joe Paterno, a decision by the trustees that triggered rioting in downtown State College.

A Nov. 18 note from Erickson also included an attachment with "talking points" for donors, including that the school had not changed its policy that gifts are not returned.

"The overwhelming majority of our leading donors have made public statements affirming their faith in the university and its future," according to the university's talking points. The document named a couple who gave $88 million to launch an NCAA ice hockey program, and another who endowed the position of head football coach.

Both the number of donors and number of gifts to Penn State increased in November, compared with the same month a year earlier. Total donations to Penn State were $3.1 million in November, compared to $1.1 million in November 2010, according to the university.

Another positive sign for Penn State was last month's announcement of a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor to bridge engineering research projects with other fields of study.

Erickson told the board he had participated in a conference call with a fundraising committee.

"Our volunteer leaders remain committed to Penn State, and my message was well received," Erickson told the trustees.

The records were obtained through a public records request filed Nov. 22 with the state Department of Education. Penn State, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer support annually, is largely exempt from the law and has declined requests for certain information as its internal investigation continues.

University spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said Erickson's memos continued after Nov. 18, but she declined to provide them to the AP.

The memos also reflect close monitoring of the widespread publicity surrounding the scandal. Erickson noted on Nov. 14 that "blogs, tweets, news stories, Facebook postings, YouTube videos, etc." had declined 50 percent from the previous day and 90 percent over the prior four days.

"Review of Top 20 search terms on Google today shows no Penn State terms on that list for the first time in nine days," Erickson wrote.

On Nov. 15, Erickson told the board that the Penn State Marketing Council was asked to help identify pressing needs, naming admissions as one area that required attention. He said the school was developing a video and "more symbolic game day experiences" for the Ohio State football game on the following weekend.

Also Nov. 15, the two top-ranking members of the Board of Trustees wrote to other board members to say that debate among the full board, including emeritus members, had become too cumbersome in the eyes of many trustees.

The board has 31 voting members, including Erickson, Gov. Tom Corbett and members of Corbett's cabinet, as well as 16 emeritus members. Although board membership is concentrated in Pennsylvania, some members live in other states.

"We need to streamline the communications among and with members of the board," chairman Steve Garban and vice chairman John Surma wrote, days after media reports surfaced of eroding support for Paterno and Spanier. "First and foremost, there have been serious breaches in confidentiality of our discussions and we will take the necessary steps to address these. Second, a smaller group will be more effective to provide feedback to President Erickson."

The executive committee was designated to serve that function, Garban and Surma wrote, adding that no major policy steps would be taken without appropriate participation by the full board.

The third update from Erickson said the school's vice president for university relations, Bill Mahon, had asked Penn State deans and chancellors to emphasize "remorse, humility and resolve."

"It is critical that we show that we are moving forward under the leadership of President Erickson," Mahon told the administrators. "Please be sure that there is broad understanding that he is the president, not the interim president."

Mountz said Tuesday that the internal memos show the president and board working "to reinforce all the positive elements" of Penn State while addressing the scandal.

She said the documents showed Erickson "focusing on improving communications, reaching out to students, faculty and alumni and the public, and appointing new leadership."

The school's public relations challenges continue, with a permanent successor to Paterno still not named and a couple of football recruits revoking verbal commitments to play for the Nittany Lions. Former players and other alumni have criticized how the university treated Paterno, the winningest coach in the history of major college football.

Erickson plans to meet with alumni to discuss the abuse scandal next week in town hall-style meetings in Pittsburgh, near Philadelphia and in New York.

Messages left for Garban, Surma and several other trustees were not returned.

Sandusky has been charged with sexual abuse of 10 boys over more than a decade, charges he has denied. He is free on bail while awaiting a trial in Centre County, where Penn State's main campus is.

Charges against two administrators, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, were sent to county court in Harrisburg for trial after a daylong preliminary hearing last month. After being charged, Curley was placed on administrative leave at his request, and Schultz retired.

Curley and Schultz deny the allegations that they lied to the grand jury investigating Sandusky and did not comply with a state law that requires suspected child abuse, in certain circumstances, to be reported to higher authorities.

The day the charges were announced, Spanier released a statement expressing unconditional support for Curley and Schultz and predicting they would be exonerated.