PITTSBURGH (AP) — Penn State University President Rodney Erickson had comforting words but few answers to tough questions at a town hall meeting with alumni in Pittsburgh in the wake of the school’s child sex abuse scandal.
Erickson is attempting to repair the school’s image more than two months after former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on abuse charges brought controversy, criticism and contemplation to Penn State.
Erickson was greeted by polite applause at the 90-minute meeting, the first of three sessions with alumni this week. The second one is being held Thursday evening near Philadelphia.
He said critics have accused the university of having problems with openness and communication but that the school “will do better in the future.”
But Jean Spadacene was shocked to learn that Erickson hasn’t even spoken to Joe Paterno since the longtime coach was fired in early November.
“I would think one of the first things on his to-do list would be to send a note to Joe. And he didn’t do that,” she said.
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,” Hrinak said, adding that he feels that way even though he respects Paterno and is a season ticket holder at football games.
The most sustained and passionate applause of the evening came from a questioner who suggested that the entire board of trustees step down, but Erickson failed to build on the emotion.
“I think the board will have to make those decisions,” said Erickson, who is also scheduled to speak to alumni in New York City on Friday.
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.
After one questioner called the treatment of Paterno “unconscionable” on Wednesday, Erickson responded by saying that “We will certainly want to honor Joe as the future unfolds.”
Pressed for details later in the evening on what that meant, he replied that there were “no plans in place yet, but there will be.”
Erickson also said that the board of trustees “will certainly have to speak to how that decision” to fire Paterno was made, but he didn’t criticize the board.
“No, I supported their decision,” Erickson said after the event.
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.
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 remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial.
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.
Although Sandusky has maintained his innocence, at one point Erickson seemed to imply that abuse did occur.
“There are victims out there, and we need to do the right thing by those victims,” Erickson said.
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 Erickson’s predecessor, Graham 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.
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