Scandal-plagued PSU tries to rewrite its narrative

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

STATE COLLEGE — Austin Puchany had a hard time fitting his belongings into a 15-by-12-foot dorm room at Penn State on Friday, his Steelers and Pirates gear stuffed into his modest closet.

But what the 18-year-old Bishop Canevin grad from Cecil didn't have a hard time with was deciding to come to Happy Valley to pursue medicine. The Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal less than two years ago? He didn't consider it much.

“It honestly didn't bother me,” Puchany said. “Obviously, it was a terrible thing, but as far as the academic side, Penn State is still a great school.”

Puchany is among thousands of students moving into State College this weekend, many of whom are trying to move on from the turmoil that's plagued the university, once the gold standard for ethics.

The turmoil includes NCAA sanctions, a looming criminal trial for three former administrators and selection of a new president.

Penn State has lost significant cash since the scandal broke in November 2011 and now is pinching pennies.

Officially, the university spent $47.7 million, as of May 31, on matters related to the Sandusky scandal, according to university spokespeople. That figure includes only costs associated with the first installment of the NCAA fine, legal fees, public relations and consulting.

It doesn't include money spent toward implementing 118 of 119 recommendations outlined by Louis Freeh in his university-commissioned report, which cost $8 million. It doesn't account for $60 million set aside to settle with 25 of Sandusky's accusers.

Penn State maintains that student tuition and taxpayer money have not and will not go toward costs associated with the scandal. It plans to pay for most costs through insurance, but it's entangled in a lawsuit with its insurance company that's refused to pay victims' settlements.

The $60 million NCAA fine is expected to be paid through football reserves, the deferring of capital and maintenance projects and an internal loan the central university issued to the self-supporting athletic department.

There's little evidence Penn State students and faculty are much affected by the monetary mess. But the effects are beginning to seep through.

Penn State faculty and staff across the commonwealth launched a campaign to toss the new wellness program, which President Rodney Erickson said in a letter to staff members was implemented “to allow us to better control the currently unmanageable increases in health care costs for our benefits-enrolled faculty and staff.”

The program fines faculty and staff who don't participate in annual biometric screenings and fill out health questionnaires. It also penalizes those who smoke and have spouses on their plans who could receive health care from their own organizations.

Students feel the effects, too.

Royalties on licensed merchandise dropped by $700,000 in the past year, and $1 million in two years. That money traditionally went to fund student scholarships and student-related capital projects.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers didn't deny the drop in merchandise revenue was a result of “unimaginable turmoil,” but did say scholarships won't be reduced by the downturn in royalties. However, student-related capital projects could take a hit. The projects that could be reduced or delayed aren't known.

Some say that the effects aren't all bad.

Student body president Katelyn Mullen, 21, a senior from New Jersey, said she wanted to lead the university in a time of uncertainty and be a change agent. She says students are up to the challenge of changing the national narrative about Penn State.

“Initially, as students, we were very much on the defense and were taking a lot of hits and criticism from all over,” Mullen said. “Now, two years later, we're taking strides now more on the offensive side, and it's like we're trying to prove ourselves.”

Student and administration-led child abuse prevention programs have popped up in several of the university system's 20 campuses.

As for the mood on campus, it depends on whom you ask.

Mullen said older students who were around when the scandal broke are often more enmeshed in it. Incoming freshmen chose to come to the university despite the tumult.

“I've looked past it because I knew how great this university is,” said Jim Tersak, 18, another Bishop Canevin grad and new Penn State move-in. “Everyone threw shame on this university for the actions of one guy. But there are so many good things about this place. I love it already.”

Anna Orso is a freelance reporter based in State College.

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