UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State University trustees were briefed by then-President Graham Spanier about a grand jury investigation of child sex abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky months before his arrest, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said.
Mr. Erickson said Tuesday he did not attend the briefing, which he said took place in May or July while he was still provost, nor was he told it had occurred until after Mr. Sandusky's November arrest blew up into a national media firestorm and Mr. Spanier resigned. The briefing is likely to fuel further questions about what university leaders, including the trustees board, knew and did in the critical months after the investigation came to light last spring.
"I have no idea, because I wasn't there," Mr. Erickson said when asked how serious the allegations were characterized in the briefing. "Nor did I know it was taking place."
Mr. Erickson's comments were part of a wide-ranging, hour-long interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the eve of three meetings starting Wednesday night in Pittsburgh with alumni, many of whom are angry at how the university and board handled the Sandusky case.
During the interview in Old Main on Penn State's main campus, Mr. Erickson, 65, told the newspaper he intends to step down as president after his employment contract ends in June 2014 and that a national search will then be conducted for a successor.
He also discussed various other topics, from the upcoming alumni meetings and criticisms of the board to the role of football versus academics and proposed legislation to bring Penn State under the state's Right to Know Act.
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 has decided not to move into the official president's residence.
He said the school's academic accomplishments must be better showcased but insisted he never intended for that to occur at the expense of the school's rich football tradition, a position attributed to him that triggered a backlash among Nittany Lion fans.
He said making the public more likely to associate Penn State with teaching and research excellence is difficult when so many people are more interested in reading about the university's sports. He said Penn State announced a few weeks back that faculty researchers were closing in on a cure for one form of leukemia, but it "received almost no attention beyond the university."
Mr. Erickson took office in the wake of the arrest of Mr. Sandusky, who faces 52 criminal counts stemming from alleged sexual abuse of boys spanning more than a decade.
Mr. Spanier resigned and famed football coach Joe Paterno was fired amid criticism of Penn State's failure to alert law enforcement to one incident involving the campus: the allegation that Mr. Sandusky had sexually abused a boy in a campus shower back in 2002.
Mr. Erickson said he had read about the grand jury investigation -- first reported by the Harrisburg Patriot-News -- in the Centre Daily Times. He did not inquire further, noting the only new allegations seemed to have no connection to Penn State and were against a retired employee he did not know still had access to campus.
Mr. Erickson spoke of the importance of the university's alumni, who have the chance to ask him questions directly during three town hall-style 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.
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.
Mr. Erickson 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.
As of this week, student applications to the university are up between 2 and 3 percent from a year ago, despite the scandal, Mr. Erickson said.
And he told the Post-Gazette that 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 gift from Mr. Paterno.
But not all of the school's major donors have committed to more gifts, with some withholding their usual offerings.
Leading the university through crisis at perhaps the lowest point in its history -- which he called a "flamethrower" environment -- was not how the 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 11, 2012 5:00 AM