New Penn State president to face angry alums in upcoming meetings
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Jerry Kintigh, 79, a retired Air Force colonel from Mt. Lebanon and a proud Nittany Lion, counts five Penn State University degrees among himself, his wife and their children.
Yet his affinity for the school is rivaled these days by something almost as intense: his anger at how the child sex abuse scandal rocking his alma mater has been handled.
One group he is especially upset with is Penn State's 32-member board of trustees, which he said seemed to do little for months after a grand jury investigation into former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky came to light in March.
Then, when Mr. Sandusky's November arrest blew up in the national media, the board overreacted, Mr. Kintigh said, pushing out legendary football coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier in a panic without having all the facts.
Mr. Kintigh said he believes State College is too small a town for board members not to have heard some whispers more than a decade old. He said the trustees must go, and he's even fantasized about how it ought to occur.
"They should call a meeting, and then they should proceed to the steps of Old Main and right there, in front of the news media, they should all resign," he said. "They took the university and threw it to the wolves."
Similar sentiments, though not all as strongly worded, are being expressed by other Penn State alumni. And that anger could greet Penn State President Rodney Erickson as he embarks on an extraordinary three-day series of town hall-style meetings with the university's alumni, the first of which is in Pittsburgh Wednesday night.
One group, dubbed "Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship," has launched a campaign to vote out alumni-elected members of the board of trustees. PS4RS -- which says it has 2,000 members who include alumni, students, staff and others -- said in a release that members have "come together to affect positive change at the board of trustees level, demanding transparent, trustworthy and moral leadership in the upcoming elections."
For sure, the president who was handpicked by those trustees to lead Penn State through its worst ever crisis will encounter plenty of faithful Wednesday night whose desire to live, die and bleed the school's blue and white colors has not wavered.
But once he takes the stage inside the DoubleTree by Hilton, Downtown, he also may encounter those who contend Penn State's effort to rehabilitate its image won't be complete without a board shakeup.
Mr. Kintigh, who earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1954, said he's not sure if he will attend the meeting. But another alumnus who plans to be there is John Caspero, 72, of Bridgeville, a retired property tax analyst for U.S. Steel and member of Penn State's Class of 1961.
He said if given the chance, he will ask how the school plans to mend itself and what safeguards are in place for the future. Though Mr. Caspero said many trustees have worked hard for the university, he too feels a housecleaning is in order.
The trustees "ought to step aside," he said.
Steve Garban, chair of Penn State's board, did not respond to an interview request for this story, nor has he answered messages left by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at his home and at the board office stretching back to November. John Surma, vice chairman of the board, also could not be reached for this article.
In addition to Wednesday night's 7 p.m. session, Mr. Erickson will address alumni gatherings in King of Prussia Thursday night and in New York City Friday night. He has expressed confidence in the board's oversight abilities and suggested there is no reason to believe members had prior knowledge of allegations involving Mr. Sandusky, who is charged with 52 criminal counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys spanning more than a decade.
In the scandal's first days, criticism of the board focused almost exclusively on the firing of Mr. Paterno, who, like Mr. Spanier, came under escalating criticism over Penn State's failure to alert law enforcement to one such incident on campus: the allegation that Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a campus shower in 2002.
The PS4RS group said in an Internet posting that the board showed "moral cowardice" in firing the iconic coach "to gratify a media lynch mob."
But more recently, the criticisms have evolved into newer complaints that board leaders have been largely invisible since the scandal broke and that trustees were clumsy in their handling of the allegations and insensitive to concerns raised by groups including faculty.
The trustees are scheduled to meet Jan. 20 on the University Park campus. Four days later, the Faculty Senate is expected to weigh a resolution calling for a vote of no confidence in, and the resignation of, the board.
Anthony Ambrose, a medical college physician who introduced the measure in December, said Penn State ought to have a new board that's "lean, clean and, probably under the circumstances, pretty mean."
Other faculty present at the December meeting expressed skepticism over the board's creation of an investigative committee whose members all have ties to Penn State. Six of its nine members are trustees.
Faculty also noted that they were not consulted before the board in November declared Mr. Erickson the school's permanent president with neither a customary national search or a public vote required by law.
The board, faced with complaints that it had violated the state's Sunshine Act, eventually scheduled a special meeting of its executive committee in December to vote formally on Mr. Erickson's appointment, fire Mr. Paterno and accept Mr. Spanier's resignation.
Three board seats appointed by alumni are up for election this spring, and at least one candidate, Ryan Bagwell, 32, a Web developer from Madison, Wis., is waging an insurgent campaign based on board reform. He says the trustees showed ineptitude in their handling of the Sandusky matter.
Donald Heller, who for years headed Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education, said it's hard to speculate about what board members actually knew about the criminal investigation before Mr. Sandusky's arrest. But he said a campus inquiry under way to assess the university's handling of the Sandusky matter may well address questions about the board's structure and its interaction with the administration.
Penn State's board is much larger than those of public universities in other states, which have perhaps 10 to 20 members, said Mr. Heller, who left Penn State last year and now is dean of the college of education at Michigan State University.
"It's largely a self-perpetuating board in that [its] leadership and leadership of the university have a lot of control over who the members are," he said.
In addition to ex-officio members and those appointed by the governor, nine trustees are elected by alumni, six are voted in by agricultural societies and six more are elected by the board from business and industry.
It gives the university the ability to screen those who potentially will oversee it.
"I think it's fair to say that Graham [Spanier] as president probably had a fair amount of influence over that process," Mr. Heller said.
Some alumni and others who accuse the board of being too cozy with the administration point to another element that Mr. Heller said appears unusual for a public university -- the movement of individuals from the board to the administration, and vice versa.
For instance, Cynthia Baldwin, former board chair, is now Penn State vice president and general counsel. Mr. Garban was senior vice president of finance and operations/treasurer before assuming his board leadership.
And in November, when Penn State needed an acting athletic director, it tapped board member David Joyner. His trustee seat was suspended so he could take the job.
While university boards generally conduct business without serious public discord, some alumni at Penn State wonder if their board is particularly constrained.
Published guidelines instruct trustees to "speak openly within the board and publicly support decisions reached by the Board" and to maintain confidentiality "without exception."
With Mr. Paterno and Mr. Spanier, the university's two most visible fundraisers, now out of the picture, the school will likely be under greater pressure in the coming months to maintain strong ties with its network of half a million alumni.
It raises the stakes even further for Mr. Erickson as he begins his alumni meetings.
Roger L. Williams, executive director of the Penn State University Alumni Association, told members in a message days before the Christmas break that their ranks had been traumatized but were generally holding together.
"It's true: A number of Alumni Association members have resigned from our ranks over the last month -- a relatively small number," he wrote. "It's also true that nearly all of our members are standing strong."
Mr. William's remarks, posted on the association's website, did not specify how many of the group's 165,000 dues-paying members had quit. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
"This could have happened anywhere, to any institution," Mr. Williams wrote. "Unfortunately, it happened here. But we are dealing with it and beginning to move forward.
First Published January 8, 2012 12:00 am