Penn State Looks Ahead But Scandal Fallout Lingers
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Almost every time Penn State leaders try to move forward, some event or milestone invariably renews focus on its recent, painful past.
A year after retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges, the fallout from one of the worst scandals ever in higher education promises to linger still for months, if not years, to come. New charges that former university president Graham Spanier and two other officials conspired to conceal allegations against Sandusky provided the latest agonizing reminder.
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced last month to at least 30 years in prison after being convicted in June on dozens of criminal counts covering allegations on and off campus. He has maintained his innocence and is pursuing appeals.
Speaking Friday in Washington, university president Rodney Erickson said “we can expect more fallout” with civil lawsuits and more criminal proceedings on the horizon.
Many alumni, students and State College residents are weary of the seemingly endless trickle of developments since Sandusky's arrest on Nov. 5, 2011.
Most students at the Hetzel Union Building lounge paid no attention Thursday to the news about the charges against Spanier airing on the big-screen television. They were more engrossed in texting friends or working on laptops.
Others questioned before a Bruce Springsteen concert that night in State College expressed a mix of apathy and anger about the latest charges, fatigue over yet another development in a year full of shocking ones. Many said they were tired of the media scrutiny.
Asked to describe the Sandusky investigation, Joe McDonald of State College said, “Let's wait until it all plays out, and then we'll know more.”
And how has the school handled the aftermath of the scandal a year later?
“I think treading water, but let's wait until everything comes out,” McDonald said before walking away.
Lawyers for Spanier and the other officials charged, athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz, have maintained their clients’ innocence.
“People of this character do not do, have not done what they’re charged with,” Schultz’s attorney Tom Farrell said after his client and Curley were arraigned on the new charges Friday. Curley and Schultz have also maintained their innocence to earlier charges of perjury and failing to report an abuse allegation.
In the year since Sandusky was first charged, the school has appeared to accept the inevitable tide of changes but worked to maintain control where it could. A “moving forward” message established from the stately Old Main administration building is part of a $2.5 million contract with public relations firms to repair the school's image.
Erickson, who took over after Spanier left under pressure four days after Sandusky's arrest, promised this week at the university’s inaugural conference on child sex abuse prevention research and treatment that the school would be a leader on such issues.
And many recommendations that resulted from the school's investigation into the scandal have been put in place, including tighter security restrictions around athletic facilities. The new leaders of the board have promised to closely study the report’s recommendations to improve governance and oversight.
The most popular move university leaders made was the hiring of new football coach Bill O’Brien. In the face of NCAA sanctions that could weaken the marquee football program, he has galvanized support among alumni, students and fans.
“We’ve really rebuilt as a university,” senior Ingrid Kaplan said Thursday at the campus student union. “There’s still a lot of rebuilding because of the new charges ... but I think overall we've really come together as a university to show that this will not bring us down regardless of how bad the situation is.”
Sophomore Alexandra Busalacchi of Bethlehem, said she thought the school's new leadership has done a good job in tackling the problem of child abuse and reaching out to abuse victims, and that Freeh’s report “was a good acknowledgement of the situation.”
“We’re focused on efforts to get better and better,” Busalacchi said while volunteering a table selling ear warmers for the THON student charity for pediatric cancer patients and research. “I'm definitely proud to be a member of our student body, and I think we’ve responded well.”
But for some, another casualty of the scandal was faith in the university and its governing board of trustees. Penn State drew negative reviews from outside Pennsylvania, and a groundswell of distrust remains among many in an alumni base of about 560,000 and the untold thousands of others whose only ties to the school are as football fans.
It stems in large part from the trustees' firing of the late Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno on the same day that Spanier left his job. Paterno was beloved as much in the community for his philanthropic efforts and focus on education as for his two national titles and hundreds of victories.
Anger bubbled over again after the publication of the report summarizing the school's investigation into the scandal, headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh. The university-sanctioned report accused Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz of covering up allegations to protect Penn State's image. Paterno’s family and the school officials firmly contend the allegations are untrue.
Alumni were irritated that trustees accepted Freeh’s report without doing a detailed review of it and that they also left unchallenged the NCAA’s assertion that Penn State had a “football-first” culture. NCAA data released last month showed the Penn State football team had a record graduation rate of 91 percent, well above the major college average of 68 percent.
“We’re not going to lose sight of the past, but this is about the future,” said Larry Schultz, a 1980 Penn State graduate who has organized two “Rally for Resignations” this fall. “What we’re asking for is very, very simple. ... We want answers. We want the truth.”
The fallout from the scandal was not limited to campus. The criminal investigation into Sandusky has become a political issue, too. The probe began in early 2009 while Gov. Tom Corbett was Pennsylvania’s attorney general. Corbett, a Republican who was elected governor in 2010, has said politics played no role in the investigation.
Kathleen Kane, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, has vowed that, if elected, she would demand an investigation into why it took years for Sandusky to be charged. Her Republican challenger, David Freed, has not ruled out a review of the case and has said that, if he were to come across any evidence that required a review, one would be done.
The fate of any investigation, yet another effect of the sex abuse scandal, will be decided in Tuesday's election. And the next day, Spanier is expected to be arraigned.