UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State University president Rodney Erickson will step down after his employment contract ends in 2014, he said today in a one-hour interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
On the eve of three meetings with alumni expected to be contentious, Mr. Erickson pledged a more open administration than those that came before his. To buttress that assertion, he and the university released some details of his employment contract and compensation.
Mr. Erickson's contract includes a base annual salary of $515,000 with the possibility of more through performance bonuses. He uses a university-owned car but will not live in the official president's residence.
The contract ends June 30, 2014, after which Mr. Erickson told the Post-Gazette he plans to step down as Penn State conducts a national search for his successor.
Mr. Erickson took office in November after the resignation of his predecessor, Graham Spanier, amid a scandal centering on charges of sexual abuse against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Mr. Erickson, 65, discussed a series of topics in the interview, from the coming meetings with alumni to complaints about the board of trustees to enrollment and giving to proposed legislation to bring Penn State under the state's Right to Know Act.
He chose his words carefully and spoke of the importance of the university's alumni, who have the chance to ask him questions directly during meetings Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Thursday in King of Prussia, just west of Philadelphia, and Friday in New York.
"The first thing they need to hear from me is that we're not going to let the actions of one individual define who we are as an institution," he said.
Despite anger from alumni and others directed at the board of trustees, including calls for their ouster, Mr. Erickson said he believes the board is still in a position to provide meaningful leadership to the university.
But he acknowledged criticism that the board and university administration had been too cozy.
"There needs to be a healthy separation," he said.
But Mr. Erickson would not commit to surrendering the university's rare exemption to the Right to Know law even as he talked about greater public transparency.
He suggested, however, that Penn State will resist such a move less vigorously than it did under Mr. Spanier, who was a vocal and public advocate for the exemption, testifying in support of it before the legislature in 2007.
"I would not expect to testify under those kinds of circumstances," Mr. Erickson said.
He said the university will not oppose public release of employee salaries under a revised law, adding that one-third of Penn State's 44,000 employees are already subject to public availability through the state employee retirement system.
Applications to the university are up between 2 and 3 percent from a year ago, Mr. Erickson said.
And he told the Post-Gazette that the scandal had affected giving to Penn State -- annual giving was up over the year before though some major donors had withheld gifts or not yet decided whether to offer them.
Mr. Erickson cited recent gifts of $10 million for engineering and $3 million for an endowed professorship at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
The university also received the annual $100,000 donation from former longtime football coach Joe Paterno, fired as Mr. Spanier resigned amid accusations he did not do enough with allegations against Mr. Sandusky.
But not all of the school's major donors have committed to more gifts, with some withholding their usual offerings.
"There are a few that have," he said.
And some have not yet made up their minds.
"There are some major donors that will be watching closely how things evolve over the next several weeks," Mr. Erickson said.
Leading the university through crisis at perhaps the lowest point in its history -- which he called a "flamethrower" environment -- was not how the former geography professor anticipated spending the last years of his career.
"I have so much love for Penn State," he said. "I believe in this place. That keeps me going."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977. First Published January 10, 2012 6:00 PM