Penn State tries to move forward after Sandusky scandal
Many issues ahead for the university to tackle
January 13, 2013 5:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, center, leaves the Centre County Courthouse after attending a post-sentence motion hearing Thursday in Bellefonte, Pa.
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Penn State University has spent an exhaustive amount of energy, not to mention tens of millions of dollars, trying to move beyond its infamous child sex abuse scandal.
Just the same, so many legal and other difficulties lie ahead for Penn State as the Jerry Sandusky matter enters the new year that simply naming the problems is hard to do in one breath.
School trustees meet Friday and are expected to name a successor to board Chairwoman Karen Peetz. Once that happens, they and other leaders of the state's flagship public university will dive back into a complex, costly and painful set of issues, some of which could preoccupy the university for a decade or longer, experts say.
Those issues include:
• Negotiations with attorneys aimed at reaching financial settlements with roughly two dozen child sex victims of Sandusky, the retired Penn State assistant football coach now in prison.
• Criminal charges and potential trials facing former Penn State President Graham Spanier and two of his top administrators, who are accused of conspiring to cover up Sandusky's crimes.
• A U.S. Department of Education investigation of Penn State for possible Clery Act violations that observers say could yield record agency fines.
• Ongoing criminal investigations by Pennsylvania's State Attorney General and by the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
• A $4 million whistleblower lawsuit filed against Penn State by former assistant football coach Mike McQueary, who in 2001 reported to superiors seeing Sandusky involved in sexual activity with a boy in a football locker room shower.
• An analysis being readied by a team of experts commissioned by the family of late football coach Joe Paterno that could offer a highly unflattering take on Penn State's handling of the Sandusky matter and the school-commissioned Freeh report.
• Potential for lawsuits involving other university employees who left amid the scandal.
• Ongoing efforts to implement 119 policy reforms to bolster abuse reporting, child safety and other campus procedures.
• Repairing strained relations with alumni and other constituents, some still incensed more than a year later over Penn State's firing of Paterno.
And if all that were not enough, Penn State in the coming months will be conducting searches for its next president and provost.
"As much as the institution wants to move forward -- and is taking important steps to do so -- this is a scandal that will have a long tail," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. "Penn State will be dealing with the fallout from this for a decade."
The question will be whether it can do so effectively without losing the focus needed to keep a research university with almost 97,000 students and two dozen campuses honed in on its overarching goals.
Those interviewed within and outside Penn State say time will determine that. But they note that Penn State, so far, appears to have advanced on several fronts in spite of the scandal. Examples cited include recent growth in sponsored research, the second-best fundraising year in school history behind only the previous year that saw a mega gift to the hockey program, and plans to go forward with revisions to the general education curriculum.
University officials said they expect fewer undergraduate applications this year -- roughly 70,000 versus 78,873 in 2012 -- but attribute that to factors other than Sandusky, including declining numbers of high school graduates that have led to enrollment losses at other universities.
For his part, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said he sees no evidence of distraction from the university's academic, research and service mission. He said faculty and staff remain on task, many putting in long hours.
"We certainly have continuing challenges, but I couldn't be more proud of the way everyone at the university, including our students, has responded over the past 14 months," Mr. Erickson said in an email last week. He announced shortly after taking the job he would step down by June 2014 after the next president is in place.
Still, some wonder if the scandal's mounting price tag over time will slow Penn State's progress on its mission by siphoning away funds that otherwise would go to such endeavors as making the kinds of lab and classroom improvements needed to successfully compete for sought-after faculty and students.
Though Penn State insists that a significant portion of the Sandusky-related costs ultimately will be borne by insurance, the school nevertheless anticipates shaving $50 million in projects from its upcoming five-year capital plan and expects capital reductions within athletics, which must pay the biggest single Sandusky cost to date -- a $60 million landmark fine imposed by the NCAA.
Taken together, that NCAA fine, nearly $26 million in legal fees and crisis consulting costs, $13 million in future bowl revenue stripped away by the Big 10 and other expenses bring the financial impact on Penn State so far to just over $100 million, with the potential for tens of millions of dollars more in future costs.
"Those are not trivial numbers. That's all real money," said Donald Heller, who for years headed Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education and now is dean of the college of education at Michigan State University.
Some, including Mr. Hartle, said they do not believe the scandal will make it any harder for Penn State to attract top-flight candidates to its presidential search. "Penn State remains a world-class institution," he said.
Penn State Faculty Senate Chair Larry Backer, professor of international affairs and law in the Dickinson School of Law, goes so far as suggest the scandal might even make the institution more attractive to some candidates.
"You have an institution here that under conditions of extreme stress was still able to come out of it without breaking down, and that to a manager would indicate a basic strength of the institution which is extraordinary," he said.
Mr. Heller agrees Penn State will get no shortage of applicants, though he also said some of the most qualified contenders who could land jobs at other top-flight universities may have concerns knowing how much of their time would be spent dealing with Sandusky fallout. "There are lots of potential candidates out there who are going to say, 'You know, I'm not going to take that challenge on,' " he said.
Still, Mr. Heller said that Mr. Erickson's decision last year not to challenge the NCAA sanctions, as controversial as it was, will spare his successor a protracted struggle with the organization. The decision has "made the life of the next president probably easier," Mr. Heller said.
Those sanctions were imposed within weeks of the conviction of Sandusky, 68, on 45 criminal counts related to attacks on 10 boys over more than a decade, some occurring on Penn State's main campus. He is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence at State Correctional Institution at Greene in Waynesburg.
The Clery Act
One of the next significant developments could come from the Department of Education's Clery Act investigation.
The act, named for Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her dormitory room in 1986, is enforced by the Education Department. The law compels schools, among other things, to release information about crime on and adjacent to campus, publish a yearly security report, give timely warning of offenses that "pose a serious or ongoing threat to students and employees" and enact policies that support emergency response and safety, according to the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
The biggest Education Department fine paid under the law was a $350,000 penalty that Eastern Michigan University agreed to pay for violations including failing to warn the campus that one of its students had been murdered.
Some campus security experts predict the department's investigation of Penn State will shatter that record, given factors including the nature of the case, the large number of years encompassed by the investigation and extent of problems with Clery Act compliance described in the Freeh report.
The agency's demand for 13 years of crime and safety records at Penn State beginning in 1998 is unprecedented, said S. Daniel Carter, a program director at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, formed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre.
"The scope of the investigation is by far unlike anything that's been done before," he said. Asked if Penn State could be facing a fine in excess of $1 million, he replied, "The simple answer to that question is yes."