HERSHEY, Pa. — Penn State University trustees heard an upbeat report on student applications at their meeting Friday and discussed matters as ordinary as a room-and-board rate increase and the state's tight funding for higher education.
But just before adjourning, a panel now used to jarring reminders of the open wounds from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal received another one, this time from board member Alvin Clemens, who is departing after 18 years.
He told the meeting he regrets being part of a hasty -- and misinformed, he now says — decision by trustees to fire famed football coach Joe Paterno on Nov. 9, 2011.
"After 61 years of exemplary service, coach Paterno was given no chance to respond," he said. "That was a mistake. I will always regret that my name is attached to that rush to injustice."
Mr. Clemens had already joined the Paterno family and others as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA, so his views on its sanctions against Penn State's football program and on findings by Louis Freeh were no secret.
Still, his words aimed publicly at fellow trustees, including an observation that Penn State cannot move forward "without due process for all who have been damaged by unsupported accusations," raced through social media among Paterno loyalists and other board critics.
"Does anyone else want to follow?" asked a tweet on the site of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group that long has called for removal of trustees involved in what they consider a decision to scapegoat Paterno, who died in January 2012.
Asked about his statement, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said: "It is not uncommon for board members to express their opinions during the course of a meeting. Mr. Clemens is certainly welcome to do so."
For most of the meeting, discussion seemed to fit with a university putting distance between itself and the 2011 scandal that rocked the campus and sent Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, to prison for sexually abusing children over the years, some on campus.
In remarks to trustees, Penn State president Rodney Erickson said undergraduate applications for fall are running 9,000 ahead of last year, including increases of 19 percent at the main University Park campus and 8 percent at the university's Commonwealth campuses.
He said out-of-state applications are up by 26 percent, and Pennsylvanians seeking admission are running 8 percent ahead of this time last year. International applications show an 18 percent gain, he added.
"The quality of the applicant pool is noticeably higher, too, with average SAT scores about 20 points higher," Mr. Erickson told the board, meeting in the Hershey Medical Center complex.
Mr. Erickson offered less encouraging news on the proposed state appropriation for Penn State that is generally flat for 2014-15.
"If the governor's budget proposal stands as recommended, it will require Penn State to make difficult choices again this year," he said. "But we are aiming to keep to a minimum any tuition increase we bring to you for approval in July."
The trustees approved a 4.27 percent increase in room and board charges for 2014-15. The average price — for a standard double room and the most common meal plan — will be $4,885 per semester, a $200 increase.
Mr. Clemens' term had expired in 2012, but he has remained on the board because he has not yet been replaced. He said he approached the governor's office in February, asking that he not be reappointed, and that a replacement for him has since been nominated.
He said he resigned mainly due to his 18 years served but said unresolved disagreements with the board over the Freeh report, Paterno and the sanctions also were factors. "Really it's time. I've been on long enough. A lot of the board that's been on there should step down," he said.
He said he was not angry at the board and expressed pride in Penn State and in his tenure as a trustee.
During the public comment period of the meeting, a number of speakers raised board governance issues and criticized the trustees' handling of the Sandusky matter. "There is no statute of limitations on ruining people's lives," alumna Ceil Masella said.
But Thomas Hollander, Class of 1958, used his remarks to praise Mr. Erickson's decision to forgo retirement. He is to step down no later than June now that a successor has been named. "I think he left Penn State stronger than he found it," Mr. Hollander said. He criticized "a continuing focus on the past" by some trustees, which he called a disservice to Penn State's incoming president Eric J. Barron, who has been hired away from the presidency of Florida State University. Mr. Hollander said students have a disconnect from alumni for a similar reason.
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