The 600-plus alumni listened politely Wednesday night as Penn State University President Rodney Erickson expressed sympathy for child sex abuse victims and pledged going forward a campus culture based on doing what's morally right.
They even applauded when he said he would not allow "this great university ... to be defined by this horrible tragedy, nor should the tragedy define our outstanding football program which has contributed so much to Penn State's spirit and pride."
But less than one minute after the first of a series of extraordinary alumni town hall meetings was opened to questions, the hurt and anger still felt over the campus sex scandal bubbled up.
One woman rose from her seat inside the ballroom of the DoubleTree by Hilton, Downtown, and told Mr. Erickson that she was devoted to Penn State football "not because of the wins, but because of the integrity Joe Paterno instilled," referring to the legendary football coach.
"What you did to Joe is unconscionable," she said of school trustees' decision to fire him amid criticism that Penn State did not act properly on allegations that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a campus shower 10 years earlier.
Others at the meeting complained that the school had no plan to deal with the crisis and was not doing enough to counteract a bashing of the school's image by the news media.
One of the largest ovations came when a person in a written question submitted beforehand said the board of trustees needed to be replaced. It brought a large part of the crowd to its feet.
When Mr. Erickson replied that it was a decision for the board to make, groans could be heard in the room.
But for all the upset that was in evidence, there also were vocal expressions of pride in a room where some spoke of generations of family members having Penn State degrees.
One alumnus reminded Mr. Erickson that Penn State "means a lot to a lot of people," saying he once got a job interview simply on the basis of his association with the university. "I don't want to lose that," he said.
Overall, Mr. Erickson spent more than an hour giving steady answers, saying at one point he, too, appreciated Mr. Paterno's contributions and that the former coach will be honored sometime in the future.
In all, Mr. Sandusky, 67, is charged with 52 criminal counts related to the alleged sexual abuse of 10 boys over a 15-year period. He has denied the charges.
Mr. Erickson said the school was taking ownership of the issue of child abuse, donating money to efforts to combat it and trying to raise awareness.
Mr. Erickson said costs of handling the crisis will come from a mix of insurance and from interest earned on investments and other accounts, not from tuition, taxpayer or donor dollars.
He said the school, in November alone, spent $360,000 on a crisis communication firm. He said to demonstrate openness, the school next week will begin posting on its website billings pertaining to the crisis.
"We think it's important that people know their hard-earned tuition dollars, tax dollars or donor dollars are not going to be used," he said.
"We all feel the pain of the children who were victims of child sex abuse," he said. "There is no one in the Penn State community who can do anything but repudiate and feel revulsion toward anyone responsible for abuse and violence against children."
Wednesday night's town hall-style meeting was the first of what could be three contentious sessions with alumni, many of whom are unhappy with how Penn State leaders including trustees have handled the matter. Mr. Erickson will address alumni in King of Prussia, near Philadelphia, tonight and in New York City Friday night.
The sessions were sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association.
New questions about how well the trustees responded to the allegations arose Tuesday after Mr. Erickson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his predecessor, Graham Spanier, briefed trustees on the grand jury investigation into Mr. Sandusky in May or July, months before his arrest Nov. 5 triggered a media firestorm.
Within five days of that arrest, Mr. Spanier resigned and Mr. Paterno was fired.
Mr. Erickson said he did not know how seriously Mr. Spanier portrayed the allegations during that briefing because he did not attend it and was not told it had occurred until after Mr. Spanier resigned Nov. 9.
At the town hall meeting, Mr. Erickson said the briefing was made to the board's executive committee.
Mr. Spanier did not respond to emails last month and again this week asking about the briefing. Board Chairman Steve Garban and vice chairman John Surma did not return calls seeking comment, nor did Penn State general counsel Cynthia Baldwin.
Alumni have also raised anew questions about whether the investigative committee empaneled to review Penn State's handling of the matter can be objective, given that six of its nine members are trustees.
After the meeting, Jeffrey Pugh, 44, of Greensburg, a public school teacher and member of Penn State's Class of 1989, commended Mr. Erickson's efforts to answer as many of the questions as possible. "I was disappointed in what I still felt was attention to things like athletics and football.
"Penn State is not about football," Mr. Pugh said. "It's about the 500,000 alumni. It's about the students who are both at the university now and those who want to continue to attend."
Charonda Hill, 27, of Penn Hills, a member of the Class of 2006, said the meeting was informative but some of the answers should have been more tailored to the questions. "But I think that he has a lot of responsibility to be politically correct in terms of what he can say and the legalities."
She added, "I think his heart's in the right place."
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977. First Published January 12, 2012 5:00 AM