Difficult questions at Penn State

Students were given free rein to voice concerns. The president and other leaders responded.

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Penn State president Rodney Erickson with Peter Khoury, a student government leader.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - How do you restore integrity to a shamed university?

Or get a job when all anyone wants to ask about is the child sex-abuse scandal at your school?

Or spare students the stinging price tag from a potential raft of civil suits?

Such were the difficult, occasionally uncomfortable, questions from students Wednesday night at a first-of-its kind forum at Pennsylvania State University.

The goal was straightforward - to give students the chance at a no-holds-barred Q&A session about the scandal that has engulfed the university since the state Attorney General's Office filed sex-abuse charges last month against former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

New Penn State president Rodney Erickson said at the outset that his first reaction to the horrific acts alleged in painful detail in the grand jury's presentment was "shock, sadness, and disbelief." But now, he said, his focus must be on what comes next.

"It's really where do we go from here," said Erickson, who was promoted three weeks ago to replace fired president Graham B. Spanier. "How do we respond to the needs of victims? How do we help our students move forward . . . and our faculty and staff, who have been deeply experiencing this tragedy so personally?"

Judging by the questions Wednesday night, there is a lot of work ahead.

Although the forum's tone was civil, there were moments of awkwardness.

Several students questioned Erickson and other top administrators about whether former football coach Joe Paterno, who was not swept up in the criminal charges, had been unjustly fired, and whether the university had bowed to the pressure of scrutiny from the national media.

Erickson denied any outside influence but avoided a direct answer to the Paterno question. At one point, he stressed that the investigation by the Attorney General's Office was continuing.

Prosecutors allege Sandusky molested at least eight boys he met through the Second Mile, a charity for at-risk youth he founded in 1977.

Two university officials - former vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley - have also been charged. Prosecutors contend they failed to report their knowledge of an alleged 2002 incident in which Sandusky was purportedly seen raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers of the football locker room.

After the grand jury report was released - and amid the firestorm of criticism that rained down on the university - Penn State trustees fired Paterno and Spanier over their handling of the Sandusky allegations. Neither has been criminally charged.

At Wednesday's forum, Erickson and others said Penn State's legacy would not be judged by one scandal or the actions of one person.

"None of you are guilty," said Henry Foley, the university's dean of graduate school. "You may feel shame. But none of you are guilty of anything."

After the forum, Candace Fox, a sophomore from Haverford, called it "worthwhile" and said she was surprised more students did not attend. Roughly 400 people came to the forum.

"I think they dealt with it professionally," she said. "There wasn't a lot of emotion in there, but I think that when you're in a high position like they are, you kind of need to take it in a business perspective, not really add any emotion."

 


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934, acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or @AngelasInk on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Jake Kaplan contributed to this article.