Debate about proper direction for Penn State pervades campaign
April 12, 2014 11:22 PM
The Old Main administration building on the campus of Penn State University.
By Mark Dent / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It's election season again for Penn State University, replete with the attack ads, endorsements and aggressive campaigning tactics characteristic of the added attention attached to the university's Board of Trustees the past two years.
But unlike the recent elections, a debate about the proper direction for the university pervades. Nearly two and a half years since the release of the Jerry Sandusky grand jury report, the firing of Joe Paterno and removal of administrators Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the Penn State community is still trying to agree on the best way to proceed, with buzz phrases like "moving forward" and "finding the truth" highlighting the differences in priorities if not the entire scope of voices calling for representation at Penn State.
This year's alumni Board of Trustees election, which lasts April 10 through May 8, won't necessarily solve any disagreements, but with candidates promoting more nuanced positions and priorities than the past two years, it could indicate the direction the Penn State community wants its university to go.
"Penn State is at a critical crossroads fiscally and reputationally," said Matt Schuyler, a 1987 graduate who is running for the Board of Trustees.
The fiscal part is a reality for every public university in these days of shrinking state funds. It's the reputation part that's more complicated and unique to Penn State. Indeed, president-elect Eric Barron, on the day his hiring was announced, responded to a question about bridging the divide in the Penn State community by saying, "I have a lot to learn."
In these two and a half years, Penn State has hired a new president, a new provost and two new football coaches, introduced minor reforms to the Board of Trustees and enacted 117 Freeh Report recommendations. Through the changes, a desire to dig into the university's past actions has resonated.
Trustees Anthony Lubrano, Ryan McCombie and Adam Taliaferro are suing the university they represent as part of the Paterno vs. NCAA lawsuit. Another trustee, Al Clemens, resigned from the board last month in part because he regretted his role in firing Mr. Paterno. Calls for more significant reform to the board have come from trustees like Mr. Lubrano and from state officials. By many metrics, "finding the truth" has been a more popular buzz phrase than "moving forward."
Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, known as PS4RS, a group of alumni and others not affiliated with the university or its alumni association, has dominated this landscape, much more than similar reform groups March For Truth or Penn Staters Reforming the Board of Trustees, PSU-ReBOT. The group has endorsed six candidates in the past two alumni elections, and four of them have won, including all three last year by a significant margin. PS4RS this year has endorsed former Fannie Mae CEO Al Lord, St. John's University professor Alice Pope and former state Rep. Bob Jubelirer. Like the winners of last year's election, they are emphasizing the correction of what they see as injustices done to the ousted former university leaders and through the Freeh Report, along with board reform.
"There seems to be a basic delineation between people who want to go forward and people who want to go back, and I think it's a totally false choice," Mr. Lord said. "... I want to go forward, too, but I'm not going forward without bringing along Tim Curley or Joe Paterno or Graham Spanier or Gary Schultz, who in certain cases matter immensely to what Penn State did."
Reform or move forward
During a March town hall debate in which six candidates vied for PS4RS' three trustee endorsements, Ms. Pope accused the majority of trustees of shutting out the alumni-elected trustees from influential positions on the board -- no alumni trustees from the past two elections are on the board's executive committee.
Mr. Jubelirer, in a phone conversation, referred to the longer-tenured board members as the "old guard."
"I know they're good people," he said. "We just have a very different viewpoint and why that happened and what the remedy is. They believe they've made all the changes they can possibly make and they're cosmetic, all cosmetic. So it's not that the new trustees can do anything to change or compromise or whatever. You can't compromise if you don't have an offer of compromise."
They're running against candidates more vocal in publicizing their differing priorities and in an environment that may be less concerned with the past.
Joel Myers, the lone incumbent alumni trustee running for re-election, wrote a letter on StateCollege.com denouncing PS4RS and "Penn Staters who passionately want to revisit and re-litigate every decision" from the Sandusky scandal. Seth Williams, the Philadelphia district attorney who is running for the board, regularly publicizes his emphasis on a "move forward" rather than a "fixation on the past" on his widely followed Twitter account.
Public comment sessions in the past several months have still featured several criticisms of the board and the university's handling of the Sandusky scandal, but there have also been comments criticizing alumni overly concerned with the past -- sentiments rarely expressed in 2012.
The Penn State Alumni Association in December 2013 released its third survey of alumni since the Sandusky scandal, and more people than in the previous surveys are saying Penn State did the right thing by accepting the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions. Though a majority of respondents said they wanted the university to honor Mr. Paterno and didn't trust the board, in terms of priorities for re-establishing Penn State's reputation more respondents said they wanted Mr. Barron to focus on "moving forward" than to restore Mr. Paterno's reputation or remove the current Board of Trustees.
Upward State, another group of alumni and others not affiliated with Penn State, was launched this spring by former alumni association presidents David Han, Jim Carnes and Tom Hollander. A central belief of Upward State is a focus on Penn State's future through students, rather than what Upward State considers a "negative and narrow" agenda put forth by recent winners of the trustee elections. The group has endorsed Mr. Schuyler, Julie McHugh and Dan Cocco.
Ms. McHugh said that though she understands people's problems with the university's handling of the Sandusky scandal, focusing on it risks keeping Penn State chained to the past and makes life difficult for new university leaders.
"Dr. Barron didn't come to Penn State to rehash the events of the past two years," Ms. McHugh said.
The echo of Paterno
Ms. McHugh, Mr. Cocco and Mr. Schuyler met with students in March even though students can't vote for alumni board members. Some students said they were discouraged by the university's ability to move on from the scandal and had not put enough emphasis on student life.
At the PS4RS town hall debate last month, Mr. Paterno was mentioned 28 times, whereas Penn State students were mentioned 23 times.
Trustee candidate and 2010 graduate Gavin Keirans, who did not earn PS4RS' endorsement, was responsible for 21 of those mentions. Ms. Pope, Mr. Lord and Mr. Jubelirer mentioned the students once among them.
Kevin Horne, a Penn State senior and managing editor of the student news and entertainment website Onward State, said while most students are apathetic to university governance issues, those who care are generally dismayed by some of the vocal alumni at the margins of PS4RS and other reform-minded groups, particularly their tone and refusal to accept differing points of view.
"President [Rodney] Erickson can't say a word," Mr. Horne said. "He could eat a cheeseburger, and they would find a way to say he ate the cheeseburger wrong. The conversation has become nonexistent because people are too afraid of being shut down by the crazies."
Last fall, student body president Katelyn Mullen attempted to speak with a group of alumni protesting a Board of Trustees meeting as part of the March for Truth (not affiliated with PS4RS) to voice student concerns about the image they were conveying through their actions. Ms. Mullen said some protesters listened while others rudely dismissed her.
"With any sort of discussion or debate, really, it's important you at least listen to all sides," she said. "So if we all have the common goal of making sure Penn State is the best possible, how do we get there?"
Students, alumni and people involved with Upward State and PS4RS insist the split isn't wide. Upward State, for instance, wants to honor Mr. Paterno, convince the university to be more transparent and reform the board, like PS4RS.
"I think the difference is priorities," Mr. Cocco said.
In March, after a trustees meeting, Mr. Han and Mr. Lubrano ran into each other at the Hershey Lodge. Upward State had just launched its platform. They talked casually about Upward State, PS4RS, current trustees and how alumni, including them, didn't pay enough attention to university issues before the Sandusky scandal.
In their conversation, Mr. Han brought up a line from the movie "Parenthood" in which Steve Martin and Eileen Ryan discuss the difference between the roller coaster and the merry-go-round and the benefits a roller coaster's unpredictability.
"Penn State -- it was a really great merry-go-round, but that's all it was," Mr. Han said. "It was a merry-go-round; now it's a roller coaster. ... That's what makes it vibrant and that's what makes it better."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05
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