Penn State University president Rodney Erickson said he can't remember a more excited, energized crop of returning students, despite the sex abuse scandal that has beleaguered the university for more than a year.
The president briefly talked with reporters about the incoming class and the ordeal's residual effects on the school's 20 campuses after a visit to Penn State Beaver Thursday, where he spoke at a dedication ceremony for the school's new wellness center.
"From the freshman orientation on," he said, "it's just been tremendous amount of excitement."
The comments come a week before a Sept. 15 event on Penn State's main campus, calling for Mr. Erickson and for the university's trustees who were on the board when the scandal broke to step down.
Organizers of Rally for Resignations accuse Mr. Erickson of bowing to NCAA sanctions against the university, signing a consent decree effectively eliminating the school's chance for appeal and failing to properly defend the university.
Mr. Erickson reiterated in the brief meeting with the media Thursday that accepting the sanctions -- including $60 million in fines, a four-year postseason ban and football scholarship losses -- was the most difficult decision of his 40-year career.
He also said he's ready to move forward with recommendations from the July report by former FBI director Louis Freeh and the athletic integrity agreement ordered by the consent decree.
The NCAA's punishment was based on the findings in the Freeh report, the culmination of an internal investigation for Penn State into the scandal. Retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested in November 2011, was convicted in June of abusing 10 boys over a period of 15 years, some on campus. He remains in jail, awaiting sentencing.
As part of the consent decree, former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell has been named a third-party monitor to ensure the university is complying with NCAA and Big Ten conference regulations.
"I think it's time to move on," Mr. Erickson said. "We are able to play football at Beaver Stadium, and it will be well-used for all of the next several years and well beyond that."
Mr. Erickson also addressed enrollment figures, the university's budget, fundraising and his own role on the Penn State board of trustees.
Although official enrollment numbers won't be tallied for another month, Mr. Erickson called this "a relatively stable year" with a few hundred more students at the main campus and a few hundred fewer at the commonwealth campuses. Retention rates are also good, he said.
It's too early in this fiscal year to observe trends in fundraising, but Mr. Erickson noted that "there are some parts that are up, some parts that are down."
The past two fundraising years have marked the university's most successful to date, making it difficult to compare year to year, he added.
Asked if he would support legislation that would compel Penn State to open its budget fully to the public, Mr. Erickson said the spending plan is "pretty much open right now as it is," with 3,000 pages available on the university's progress website. He said the university will discuss the matter further with state legislators and possibly address it formally after the November elections.
Mr. Erickson also said he will have to examine a forthcoming report from state Auditor General Jack Wagner concerning, among other things, Mr. Erickson's dual role as president and voting member of the board of trustees.
"I think regardless of whether the president has a vote on the board of trustees or sits as a member," Mr. Erickson said, "I think it's imperative that the president work closely with the board."
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944. First Published September 7, 2012 4:00 AM