Penn State University says it no longer has plans for a nationwide presidential search and is calling Rodney Erickson its 17th president with no apparent public vote by school trustees.
The move, which one legal expert said raises Sunshine Act compliance questions, comes as the public university's Faculty Senate passed a resolution Friday asking Penn State for an independent investigation into the child sex abuse scandal by a panel whose chair and a majority of members "have never been affiliated with Penn State."
Faculty Senate President Daniel Hagen said "the thought was that having a majority of non-Penn-Staters would give a different perspective."
It was unclear if the university would heed the faculty's call for a new panel. Eleven days ago, Penn State trustees announced a special investigative committee to be chaired by trustee Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, with a membership limited to those with university ties.
The questions Friday over Mr. Erickson's new status were the latest twist in a saga that has rocked the state's flagship public university. When the board of trustees held its last public meeting Nov. 11, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said trustees at the 96,000-student university had removed the word "interim" from Mr. Erickson's title. Mr. Erickson, 65, was elevated 10 days ago from his position as the university's provost.
She said the trustees dropped the word because "they wanted to show that their full support was behind him," but she also said Penn State nevertheless planned to conduct a national search for a permanent replacement for Graham Spanier.
However, in an email sent Friday, Ms. Powers said Mr. Erickson is the school's 17th president.
"There are no plans in the works at this time to form a search committee," she said.
"Under our current situation, which is obviously unprecedented, the board has taken the action to name the president who they believe will lead us forward," she said.
Adding to the confusion was a comment from a Penn State trustee that appeared in Friday's Penn State student newspaper, The Daily Collegian. It quoted trustee Paul Silvis as saying this of Mr. Erickson: "He's the president for good. We think it's the right time."
A call by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to Mr. Silvis' office was not immediately returned, nor was a message left at the home of Trustees Chairman Steve Garban.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said Penn State appears to fall under the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, and as such cannot hire a new president behind closed doors.
"What the law requires is that public agencies take all official actions at a public meeting," she said. "Now they certainly can discuss personnel in a private session, but the actual vote has to take place at a public meeting."
Short of that, there is no way to know if a vote was conducted at all, how individuals voted or if the decision came from a quorum of members.
"In light of what's going on there," she added, "it would be best to err on the side of openness."
Ms. Powers said Mr. Erickson was announced as the university's leader during the trustees' Nov. 11 meeting and that board members had ample opportunity to speak out if they disagreed with the selection. "There was no dissenting voice, and in fact, all gave their unanimous support," she said.
She did not, however, provide any resolution or vote naming him the permanent president. She did not respond to an emailed question asking if Mr. Erickson has a presidential contract, how many years it spans and what his pay level is.
Mr. Hagen, the Faculty Senate chair, said he attended last Friday's trustees meeting and could recall no vote making Mr. Erickson the school's permanent leader. He said he considered Mr. Erickson the acting president until Friday morning, when he saw The Daily Collegian article that quoted Mr. Silvis.
Mr. Hagen expressed confidence in Mr. Erickson, but also said, "I was, I guess, a little surprised given what I know about the situation."
Outside observers including ethicists told the Post-Gazette earlier this week that investigative committees that include members with no ties to an institution can produce findings with greater credibility.
Ms. Powers did not directly address the Senate's call for such a committee, but said the trustees' panel will have "safeguards" to ensure input and review from outside of the university.
"As always, the administration welcomes information from the Faculty Senate," she said.
Mr. Spanier resigned and famed Penn State football Coach Joe Paterno was fired Nov. 9 amid a child sex assault scandal that has drawn national headlines. They and others faced criticism for the university's failure to report to law enforcement allegations that retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in a football facility shower in 2002. Mr. Erickson became executive vice president and provost on July 1, 1999, making him the institution's chief academic officer, according to Penn State's website. A researcher, he is widely published on geography and economic matters, international trade and economic development policies, the school said.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.