Penn State president says accepting NCAA sanctions his toughest decision

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State University president Rodney Erickson said he knew in July some would vilify him for accepting landmark NCAA sanctions over the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, including a $60 million fine and postseason football ban.

"It's the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my 40-year career," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. "I said to my colleagues here, 'I know I will be condemned in some circles.' "

But in an interview marking a year since the scandal exploded into the headlines, Mr. Erickson, 66, expressed no second thoughts about that call or other tough choices he has made in the 12 months since the ouster of his predecessor, Graham Spanier, thrust Mr. Erickson into the presidency.

"With the cards I was dealt, no, I stand by those decisions ... very difficult decisions, as they were," said Mr. Erickson, who announced shortly after taking the job that he intended to step down by June 2014 after the next president is in place.

The interview in Old Main was among several he gave to news organizations a year to the day after Sandusky's arrest. During the session, he said the school has managed tremendous accomplishments despite the scandal.

Though he said the case had some impact on giving to Penn State, the $208 million in fundraising last year nevertheless was the second-best in university history, eclipsed by only the previous year that included a mega-gift toward the school's hockey program.

Sponsored research grew from $805 million to $808 million and new research awards are up by 11 percent. And despite a decline of nearly 1,400 students on its commonwealth campuses, which he attributed largely to state demographic trends, Mr. Erickson said the university of nearly 97,000 students mustered a gain of 43 students this fall because of increases in its online World Campus and growth of less than 1 percent at University Park.

"That's about as stable as it comes," he said of the modest-sized enrollment uptick.

"Our students continue to do outstanding things, both in the classroom and outside," he said. "And faculty have stayed very much on task and staying true to our mission of teaching, research and service."

The amount of his time devoted to the Sandusky matter has declined as the months have progressed, though Mr. Erickson said, "I can't recall that there is ever a day when there is not something related to it that comes across my desk, [or in] my email, my phone, my meetings."

He said he was called to testify Sept. 11 before a state grand jury investigating the case. "The judge gave me specific instructions that I was not to reveal anything about the nature of the testimony other than I had testified if asked," Mr. Erickson said.

Asked if he has any reason to think he is under suspicion, Mr. Erickson replied, "No." Nor has he been given any cause to think that additional university personnel could face charges.

Sandusky, 68, a retired Penn State assistant football coach, last month began serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence. He was convicted in June of 45 criminal counts related to sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years, some on Penn State's campus.

His arrest thrust Penn State into a media firestorm that within days led to the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the forced resignation of Mr. Spanier, who last week became the third university official to be criminally charged in an alleged coverup.

Their departures came as the university faced a barrage of criticism for its failure to alert law enforcement to one of Sandusky's attacks in a campus shower in 2001.

Responsibility for addressing those criticisms and helping repair the school's image fell to Mr. Erickson, when he took the helm of the state's flagship public university.

In addition to the typical demands of running a research institution with two dozen campuses and tens of thousands of employees, Mr. Erickson has worked to implement dozens of reforms recommended by a school-commissioned investigative report while reaching out to constituencies from faculty and students to legislators and the school's alumni, many still upset by treatment given to the late Mr. Paterno, including the removal of his statue from outside Beaver Stadium this summer.

Some school trustees said they were angry that the full board was not brought into the decision to accept the NCAA sanctions, but Mr. Erickson reiterated that he acted after consulting the board's executive committee and after weighing potential suspension of the football program and damage that could result.

Mr. Erickson, a well-regarded provost who might already be retired were it not for the scandal, seemed during Monday's interview to downplay any notion that his role was to make the most unpopular decisions now so his successor could begin a presidency unencumbered by such baggage. He suggested those decisions simply had to be made sooner rather than later.

Just the same, he said he hopes he will hand over an office that is closer to normalcy.

"Certainly, my hope is that I will have paved the way for my successor -- whoever he or she may be -- and that they will be able to come into a presidency that has more of the trappings of a normal appointment, " he said.

And he'd like to ultimately be remembered for strengthening academics during his long career at the university including the presidency. "There could be nothing better from my perspective."

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Bill Schackner: or 412-263-1977. First Published November 6, 2012 5:00 AM


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