Penn State trustee: 'We failed to ask the right questions'

SCRANTON, Pa. -- In their first response to an independent report implicating Pennsylvania State University's board of trustees alongside its top school officials, board members say their "hearts remain heavy" in accepting responsibility for a system that did not sooner stop incidents of sexual abuse by a former assistant football coach.

"We failed to ask the right questions, the tough questions, or to take definitive action," said Kenneth Frazier, who chaired the special investigation task force formed in November. "Put simply, we did not force the issue."

The report released this morning from a team led by investigator Louis Freeh concluded that prior board officials fell short in their oversight of senior university officials, saying they "failed to create an environment which held the university's most senior leaders accountable to it."

Mood at Penn State after Freeh report is released

Post-Gazette reporter Sam Werner reports from Penn State on the release of the Freeh report. (Video by Andrew Rush; 7/6/2012)

While it primarily laid blame with four individuals -- former university president Graham Spanier, longtime football coach Joe Paterno, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley -- the report also concluded that board officials did not properly press Mr. Spanier and others for information following the initial report in March 2011 that Jerry Sandusky was the subject of a criminal investigation.

Asked further as to what the trustees should have asked once the initial report came out, Mr. Frazier said the board had a "huge" degree of trust in Mr. Spanier, who trustees later forced out, and took his answers about what university officials knew at face value.

"We were also being told there were restrictions based on grand-jury secrecy about what could be said at a particular point in time," he said. "In retrospect, we were, frankly, not appropriately pushing to get deeper answers. I don't know that there were different questions, so much as asking again and again, is there nothing more that we haven't been told?"

"I don't think it was a question of asking the wrong questions -- I think it was a reticence about sharing the information. It's not a question of, if we had asked a magic question, these folks would have said, 'OK, we're not going to conceal what's going on.'"

Karen Peetz, who joined the board in 2010 and was elected chairwoman in January, said simply that the trustees "did not pay enough attention."

"It wasn't detailed, the report in May 2011 (to board members), but we should have had our antenna up and we should have been risk-managing in a much more active way," Ms. Peetz said.

She said current board members do not intend to resign in response to the report, pointing to what she described as "a natural evolution" as some newer members cycled in after this year's elections. She added that for the university's stability, the best step would be for board members acknowledge their responsibility and begin to implement changes.

Officials said that no university personnel have been asked to step down in light of the new report.

University president Rodney Erickson said his administration already has begun to work more collaboratively with the board of trustees and that they are putting together an action plan in response to the report.

A series of operating changes also have been implemented since the beginning of the year in regard to university policies for minors on campus, reporting incidents of misconduct, and certain security regulations.

At Friday's board meeting, trustees will be voting proposals to shorten their 15-year term limits to 12 years and to allow for public comment during future meetings.

As for Mr. Paterno, board officials said his legacy is "now marred" with the details contained in the report indicating that the coach knew of a 1998 incident involving misconduct by Mr. Sandusky in addition to the locker-room incident witnessed in 2001.

But the board members who fired Mr. Paterno late on a November night quickly added that judgment of the legendary coach should not focus solely on his behavior in response the abuse reports.

"There's no question that what the report finds is inexcusable failures on the part of Joe Paterno and others to protect children, there's no equivocation about that," Mr. Frazier said. "But I also say that Joe Paterno did a lot of tremendous things in his life. ... You have to measure every human by the good they've done and the bad they've done."

Mr. Erickson did note that the contract of former assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed one of the abuse incidents at the Lasch Football Building and testified at Mr. Sandusky's trial, expired on June 30.

He did not comment on the employment status of Mr. Curley, who was placed on administrative leave in November: "Let's not get ahead of ourselves here. We've just had the report for a matter of a few hours."

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Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: or 717-787-4254. First Published July 12, 2012 5:15 PM


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