Penn State presidential search could run until June

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Three days after calling and later canceling a meeting to name a new president, Penn State University trustees Friday emerged from a private session tight-lipped and insistent that the search was proceeding "with vigor."

But gone was any mention of the oft-cited target date of this month to secure a new leader. Instead, a university statement gave -- with little fresh explanation behind it -- a revised timetable of sometime within the next eight months.

"We plan to conclude this process before the end of President Rodney Erickson's term in office, which is June 30, 2014," the statement quotes trustees Chairman Keith Masser as saying.

He and other Penn State officials, including Presidential Selection Council chairwoman Karen Peetz, did not respond to inquiries asking if a finalist had withdrawn.

The day's events added to confusion already surrounding a nearly year-old process that is supposed to be helping the state's flagship public university move beyond the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

The swirl of events this week began when the university Tuesday announced a special full board meeting for Friday, even as complaints circulated that not all trustees had been kept in the loop about the search's status. Individuals on and off the board said the session's intent was to pick a successor to Mr. Erickson, and one candidate was expected on the University Park campus in time for Friday's vote.

But on Wednesday, Penn State postponed the session indefinitely. Spokeswoman Lisa Powers explained at the time that the board "has slowed the process for more thoughtful and careful deliberation."

Friday's statement gave a similar reason, saying "it was determined that more time for consideration of possible candidates was needed."

That statement also defended the search's confidentiality and said those involved had been as inclusive as possible.

After the private 90-minute session in the Nittany Lion Inn, trustee Anthony Lubrano said, "We had a very lively, healthy discussion." He said he still has no knowledge of candidates for the presidency.

Given Penn State's prominence among the nation's public universities, its leadership transition is a high-stakes affair even in normal times.

But experts say the urgency of picking the right leader now is even greater as the school works to undo damage both from child sex assaults by Sandusky, a retired Penn State assistant football coach now in prison, and from allegations that former top administrators were involved in a conspiracy to cover up his crimes.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about the week's developments.

"The consequence of not having everyone agree on the person who is going to be running the organization is going to be very serious, especially when you've been through a great deal of organizational turmoil.

"Getting it right trumps everything," he said.

The mystery surrounding the delayed search is one more reason Penn State should be brought fully under the state's Right to Know law, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause. Even if candidate names are confidential, he said, the process leading to the delay should be open to scrutiny since a lengthier search increases costs to an institution that is "a huge consumer of tax dollars," he said.

School spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said Mr. Erickson has not been approached about extending his tenure beyond June 30 if needed. She said he has given the board "a firm, fixed deadline for the term of his service" and that Penn State is confident the search will be successful.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 or on Twitter @mdent05.

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