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Penn State trustees draw alumni's ire

| Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012

Penn State University President Rodney Erickson may have awakened a sleeping giant when he offered to meet with alumni.

If the crowd of about 600 at the Pittsburgh Double Tree hotel, Downtown, on Wednesday night was any indication of the sentiment among hundreds of thousands of Penn State graduates across the country, it is not an entirely happy giant.

Erickson, the former university provost who was named president on Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, set up a series of meetings in Pittsburgh, King of Prussia and New York City through the university alumni association in an effort to make good on his promise to listen to students, faculty and alumni.

He sat calmly for 90 minutes last night, answering questions from concerned alums, spanning decades of graduating classes.

"I can assure you that, despite all the negative news, there is still much to celebrate at Penn State. I won't allow us to be defined by this tragedy," he told the crowd, vowing to move forward, emphasizing the university's accomplishments and pledging greater openness.

Erickson, who released his employment contract this week, told the group that he intends to begin posting the costs the university is incurring in the investigation on the Internet next week. Erickson said he could not estimate what the various investigations and legal costs will total, but said crisis communications consultants for November alone cost $360,000.

He said all costs are being covered either by insurance or from the university's investment earnings and that no fees will be paid with tuition, tax dollars or donor funds.

Monica Thomas, a 1985 Penn State graduate and mother of two Penn State students, said she welcomed Erickson's emphasis on the university's accomplishments and his commitment to moving forward.

But like many, Thomas of Harrison City in Westmoreland County remains perplexed by the way events unfolded in State College in the days after the arrest of Sandusky, the former assistant football coach, on multiple child sexual abuse charges.

Sandusky is awaiting trial on charges that he sexually abused 10 boys over 15 years, often in university facilities.

Retired university Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley, who is on administrative leave, face trial on charges that they failed to report allegations against Sandusky to authorities and lied about it to a grand jury.

All maintain their innocence.

Two days after the arrests, Penn State trustees ousted university President Graham Spanier and Hall of Fame head football coach Joe Paterno, citing a lack of confidence in their leadershIp.

"There are still so many unanswered questions about the board of trustees," Thomas said.

While Erickson, 65, repeatedly assured the crowd that Penn State will make plans to honor Paterno, he made no effort to explain why the longtime coach was fired.

Nick Harper, a 1974 graduate from Pittsburgh, was encouraged by Erickson's comments, but said he's still not sure the university understands the task it faces repairing its reputation.

"I talk to people all over the world in my work. The other day someone from Australia asked me about Penn State," he said.

John Zuemie, a 1980 graduate from Cranberry, echoed his concerns.

"There's been a lot of sensationalizing, a lot of misreporting. Not everyone in Salem was a witch, and not everyone in the 1950s was a communist, and not everyone at Penn State is a child molester," he said.

In recent weeks, Thomas has become active in Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, or PS4RS, a Facebook group that hopes to influence upcoming elections for three alumni posts on the board of trustees.

The alums' obvious rancor toward the trustees was apparent when the room erupted into wild applause when one questioner asked Erickson what it would take to change the board, adding, "It seems to me the whole board of trustees should step down."

"I think the board will have to make those decisions," Erickson said, adding that alumni will have an opportunity to change the membership of the board with three alumni positions up for election in the spring.

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