Penn State trustees canceled Paterno tribute



The week Joe Paterno died, Penn State University president Rodney Erickson planned an elaborate campus statement honoring the iconic football coach as a family man and philanthropist who readied his players "to be lifelong learners and engaged citizens."

But the day after he shared the five-paragraph tribute with school trustees via email, Penn State apparently reversed course, newly released records show.

"President Erickson asked that I advise that we've decided not to release the statement," Paula Ammerman, then director of the board office, wrote trustees in an email dated Jan. 26, 2012, the day after Paterno was buried.

Other records obtained by Penn State alumnus Ryan Bagwell following litigation suggest that Penn State, embattled by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and afraid every word spoken by trustees was being parsed by the media, developed a near obsession with controlling its message.

The imperative not to talk was reinforced to trustees by the confidentiality agreements they were instructed to sign and by paid advice the board and administration received from outside crisis consultants.

One privileged and confidential set of recommendations from Ketchum, among the consultants Penn State brought on board, suggested that any communication from nonspokesperson trustees be in writing from the entire board, according to the documents that Mr. Bagwell has shared with news outlets including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ketchum recommended to trustees answers they could use if approached by reporters.

"My opinions are shared with the board of trustees," read one. "Together, we make decisions and take actions."

The firm even offered advice on the kinds of campus audiences trustees might speak to including faculty senate meetings and commencement -- but only after vetting appearances first with Mr. Erickson or the board.

"Ideally, those opportunities would allow trustees to speak, but not expose them to questioning by the media," read the memo dated Nov. 19, 2011.

Penn State did not respond Tuesday to multiple requests for comment on either the statement regarding Paterno, who was fired in November 2011 as the university faced fallout from the Sandusky scandal, or on other records shared by Mr. Bagwell, who is a candidate for an alumni seat on Penn State's board.

Paterno, 85, died of cancer. Within hours of his passing, the university and its athletic department did share statements of praise. Mr. Erickson's planned tribute to be delivered Jan. 27, 2012, was elaborate, even mentioning the coach's "Grand Experiment" of combining academic excellence with championship-caliber athletics.

The note from Ms. Ammerman to the board indicated that Mr. Erickson would instead add a paragraph to a president's update planned for the following week. No explanation for the change was given.

Despite elaborate efforts to control their message, Penn State leaders seemed intent on assuring the public that the university was being open.

When informed in a March 10, 2012, email that an update on implementation of the Freeh report recommendations was planned for a trustee seminar, then board chairwoman Karen Peetz asked if the same update could be delivered during the board's public session.

"I think it will reinforce our openness theme and keep interested parties focused on our progress," she wrote in an email the next day to Tom Poole, vice president for administration.

But Mr. Poole and Mr. Erickson expressed concerns about doing so, in part because the update would include personnel policy changes that employees were not yet privy to.

Mr. Bagwell, a Web developer from Madison, Wis., and a 2002 graduate, is running for an alumni seat on Penn State's board.

In a Right-to-Know request that ultimately went to Commonwealth Court last year, Mr. Bagwell had asked for but was denied emails, letters, reports and other materials received over a period of months by then-Education Secretary Ronald J. Tomalis in his role as an ex officio member of Penn State's board of trustees.

Mr. Bagwell's appeal to the Office of Open Records was denied, but Commonwealth Court said in July that the open records office erred earlier that year when it dismissed Ryan Bagwell's appeal after the state Department of Education refused to turn over various records.

With that court victory, Mr. Bagwell submitted a second, broader request that he said yielded hundreds of additional documents March 14, including the draft Paterno tribute.

The records by themselves do not settle a long-standing dispute between Penn State and Paterno loyalists about the fairness of the school's treatment of the coach, or the accuracy of the Freeh investigative report.

But the documents do provide a further glimpse into the university's actions beginning in the days immediately after Sandusky, a former assistant Penn State football coach, was charged with sexually assaulting boys over at least a decade, including some on campus.

Now convicted, Sandusky is serving a 30- to 60-year prison term.

"What I wanted since day one was to understand more about why the board of trustees did what it did," he said. "Their silence led to the vilification of a very proud university community."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.


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