Penn State president faces alumni

PITTSBURGH -- Penn State University president Rodney Erickson was grilled Wednesday by alumni unhappy about how the school handled a child sex abuse scandal, the firing of longtime football coach Joe Paterno and a lack of transparency over the case.

Erickson is attempting to repair the school's image with alumni, faculty, staff and students more than two months since former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's arrest brought controversy, criticism and contemplation to the school.

Some alumni have criticized the university's failure to conduct a complete investigation before firing Paterno and ousting Erickson's predecessor, Graham Spanier, while decrying the leadership as secretive and slow to act.

Erickson, who was greeted by polite applause, told the crowd at the start of Wednesday night's 1½-hour meeting in Pittsburgh that openness and communication are his guiding principles. He said critics have accused the school of having problems in those areas recently and the school "will do better in the future."

When he said he won't allow the scandal to define the university nor "our outstanding football program," the audience of about 600 people burst into applause.

But the first questioner called the treatment of Paterno "unconscionable," drawing some applause and a few boos.

"We will certainly want to honor Joe as the future unfolds," Erickson replied.

And there was passionate and prolonged applause for another person's suggestion the board of trustees step down.

"I think the board will have to make those decisions," Erickson replied to some groans from the crowd.

Erickson, who said an investigation into what the trustees knew and when is ongoing, declined to answer several questions, such as why the school fired Paterno when the coach had already announced that he would retire at the end of the season.

Asked for how many defendants Penn State is paying legal fees, Erickson replied that was "a difficult question to answer." He said the school will start posting details of what the crisis has cost in legal and other fees next week.

One of the people who attended Wednesday's meeting, Gina Kelly, said she went in with negative feelings toward Erickson. She said afterward she feels he has a good plan for moving forward but not much of a plan for reconciling things that were done in the past.

Another, Jean Spadacene, said she was disappointed to hear Erickson say he hasn't spoken to Paterno since the coach was fired in early November.

"That really spoke to a lot, in a negative way," she said.

But others said Paterno was part of the problem at Penn State.

Dave Hrinak, a 1980 graduate who lives near Pittsburgh, said before the meeting that he has one main message for Erickson.

"Never again let anybody get as much power as Joe Paterno had," he said, adding that he feels that way even though he respects Paterno and is a season ticket holder at football games.

The alumni meeting came as investigators re-interview current and former employees of Penn State's athletic department as part of the case against the 67-year-old Sandusky, who's charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky has denied the charges and remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.

The alumni meeting in Pittsburgh is the first of three; the others are planned in coming days in suburban Philadelphia and New York. They are being sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association, which has received thousands of emails and phone calls about the scandal, association president Roger Williams said.

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, a legendary figure in sports, was replaced last week by New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. He has described the scandal as one of the great sorrows of his life and has said that in hindsight he wishes he had done more after allegations against Sandusky were raised.

Alumni want transparency, said Virginia A. Feinman, a television news assignment editor who plans to attend the New York forum.

Feinman is a member of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group that believes Paterno's firing and the ousting of Spanier were mishandled. The organization said it hopes to back candidates to run for elected alumni seats on the board of trustees.

Erickson said Tuesday he will step down when his contract ends in 2014.

The presiding judge in the Sandusky case said Wednesday that arguments would be heard in less than three months on pretrial issues. Trial is unlikely before autumn, a Sandusky lawyer said.

Current or former staffers of the football program are among those being interviewed anew by the attorney general's office, according to a person who was familiar with the case but was not authorized to speak and talked on the condition of anonymity. Plans for the interviews were first reported by Harrisburg's The Patriot-News newspaper.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office in Harrisburg declined to comment.

Sandusky attorney Karl Rominger, told by a reporter of the new interviews, said prosecutors would not go back to people they have already interviewed if they had nailed down the facts the first time around.

"They had years to take statements and get reliable evidence," he said Wednesday. "Going back after the fact shows they did not gather, and may never be able to gather, the proof they seek. Further, it suggests to jurors that charges were brought on flawed or inadequate information in the first instance."

Erickson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper on Tuesday that Spanier informed members of the board of trustees about the grand jury investigation months before Sandusky was charged in November. He said he did not know details of what was discussed when Spanier met with board members in May or July when Erickson was the university's provost.