Erickson predicts Penn State controversy will ebb
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State President Rodney Erickson predicted Monday that by the time he retires in about 20 months, the university will have weathered the worst of the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal.
He made the comments during an interview a year to the day after the former football coach's arrest set in motion events that would land Erickson at the helm of the prestigious but tarnished institution.
The announcement last week of charges against ousted President Graham Spanier and new charges against former athletic director Tim Curley and retired Vice President Gary Schultz — all of whom maintain their innocence — was the latest turn in a saga that Erickson concedes still is unfolding.
“It was a difficult day and a sad day for all of us at the university. And my thoughts turned to my responsibility as president to lead the university through this period and trust that the legal process will continue to deal with these cases,” Erickson said.
Erickson, 66, the university's longtime provost, planned to retire last June but agreed to stay until June 30, 2014, after trustees asked him to lead the school through the aftermath of the child sexual abuse case. It resulted in Sandusky, a former assistant coach, being sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing boys on and around the Penn State campus.
Erickson said he was horrified when he learned of the allegations against Sandusky and of the initial charges against two of his former colleagues, Curley and Schultz, whom authorities accused in connection with an alleged cover-up of Sandusky's deeds.
“There was some sense of disbelief. How could this have happened and happened here? There was a concern for the victims. I'd never read anything like that before,” Erickson said, rolling a water bottle back and forth between his hands during the interview in what was once Spanier's office.
Spanier and Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno were ousted several days after the Sandusky scandal broke. Paterno died of cancer two months later.
Now, Spanier faces conspiracy and perjury charges, which may only make Erickson's task more daunting.
Erickson faces other issues, as well, and isn't universally popular.
Mike McQueary, the former assistant football coach who reported seeing Sandusky naked in a shower with a young boy in 2001, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the university claiming it terminated him because he cooperated with prosecutors from the Attorney General's Office. McQueary said he learned he was terminated when Erickson announced it during a televised news conference July 5.
Alumni are divided over Erickson's leadership. A September rally outside Old Main, a university landmark and administration building, urged trustees and Erickson to step aside. Organizer David Mullaly, a 1969 graduate, said the board, of which Erickson is a voting member, did “nothing to protect the interests of Penn State” after the Sandusky scandal.
Erickson faced fallout from the severe sanctions the NCAA dealt Penn State's football program and which he accepted; complaints from angry alumni and fans who booed him at a recent home football game; and the start of settlement negotiations with Sandusky's victims, who largely fault the university and its leadership.
The latest charges were filed as trustees initiated their search for a new president. Erickson predicted the newest developments would not affect Penn State's ability to recruit a top candidate.
“He or she will inherit an academic home of faculty and students that I regard as second to none in the country,” Erickson said, ticking off among Penn State's selling points a research program that attracted more than $800 million last year, an athletic program that consistently graduates athletes at the highest rates in Division I sports and student charities that raise millions of dollars a year for pediatric cancer research.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed to this report.