Penn State trustees hear torrent of criticism from public

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Opening up the first-ever public comment session at the Penn State University's board of trustees meeting Friday, Patty Kirschner got straight to the point and didn't like the answer.

Ms. Kirschner, a Penn State donor, wanted to know if trustees plan to vet the internal investigation compiled by former FBI director Louis Freeh. That report implicated former head football coach Joe Paterno and ex-president Graham Spanier, along with two university officials who were charged in the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, and recommended a host of university-wide changes.

"The Freeh report has been widely criticized by students, alumni, faculty and journalists," she said. "The claim is that it is faulty in its process, facts and conclusions. ... Why have you moved forward with implementing its recommendations without determining its validity?"

Board president Karen Peetz said there's no plan for a detailed review, prompting some groans and chuckles from the audience. When the board's vice-chairman, Keith Masser, added that officials would seek input on the recommendations, Ms. Kirschner told him he wasn't answering her question.

She pressed them several times on why they weren't reviewing the report's accuracy, before shouting over Ms. Peetz that it is "based on false information."

The seven speakers -- who were held strictly to their three-minute time limits, drawing boos from the standing-room-only crowd -- generally had harsh words for the university trustees, who are still navigating the aftermath of the indictment and later conviction of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The public comment period implemented Friday is among the changes that university trustees and officials have incorporated in the 10 months since the scandal broke. Students, faculty and alumni have been added to board committees, and the scope of those panels has expanded.

Ms. Peetz noted only eight people signed up for the 10 speaking slots -- one was unable to attend Friday's meeting -- and chastised the speakers for leaving the hotel ballroom midway through the three-hour meeting.

"I wish they would stay next time and listen to the whole meeting," Ms. Peetz said. "I think they would learn something."

Friday's meeting included the announcement that a search for a new university president will begin in November, with details to be announced at that time. Former provost Rodney Erickson has served as president since Mr. Spanier's dismissal in November.

Trustees also tabled an effort to rename a campus child-care center that was named last year for former university vice president Gary Schultz. The ex-administrator has been charged, along with former athletic director Tim Curley, with failing to report an incident of child abuse and of lying to the grand jury investigating Mr. Sandusky.

Mr. Schultz's attorney, Thomas Farrell, asked trustees to wait on taking action so as not to influence his client's trial, set to begin in January. Several trustees agreed that changing the center's name now would be premature.

Ms. Peetz, Mr. Erickson and other officials responded to most of the speakers, including to alumnae Cecelia Masella, who was critical of what she described as discrepancies among public comments on whether the NCAA had been considering shutting down Penn State's football program as part of its sanctions.

"This board wants the general public to move forward, but I am here to tell you that's not going to happen, because the stakes are too high and the injustices are too numerous," Ms. Masella told the trustees. "There are many thousands of individuals just like myself who cannot heal until truth triumphs."

Mr. Erickson told her that he stands by his public comments that the university faced the so-called "death penalty" for its football program, and that given that alternative, he agreed to the $60 million in sanctions.

"I still believe that was the best course of action given what we were faced with," he said.

Officials did shut down an attempt by former Nittany Lion and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris, who is scheduled to speak at today's rally, to add himself to Friday's list of speakers. He asked to speak in place of the person who was not able to attend, and when he did not abide by requests to step aside, the microphone was shut off.

University officials noted afterward that Thursday's board committee meetings also included public comment sessions for the first time, which they said resulted in some constructive comments.

"There was nothing new, but I think that it gives you certainly somebody saying it in their own words versus reading an email," Peetz said. "Reading it is different from hearing it."

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