Penn State University shows no sign of lifting veil of secrecy
Published: Tuesday, December 06, 2011, 5:00 AM
By SARA GANIM, The Patriot-News
During his first news conference after taking over as Penn State president, Rodney Erickson made a statement that seemed to acknowledge a culture of secrecy at the university.
He pledged transparency and open dialogue as students, faculty and alumni tried to move beyond the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
That was Nov. 11.
Three weeks later, there’s little show of that promise.
The university contracted former FBI Director Louis Freeh to do an internal investigation, but won’t say how much it’s paying the firm. The university is also keeping secret how how much it is paying public relations firm Ketchum, which it hired in the wake of the scandal that ousted President Graham Spanier, head football coach Joe Paterno and two top university officials.
At a town hall meeting with students, Erickson and administrators tap-danced around some of the most basic questions posed to them.
When they were asked about a change in a “football-focused revenue stream,” Erickson said football has never defined Penn State.
When they were asked about the firing of Joe Paterno, Erickson replied that it is time to look forward.
When they were asked about waiving an exemption to the state’s Right to Know laws, Erickson directed students to the university website where he said budget information was posted, and then talked about medical records and HIPAA laws.
Transparency might have to be forced.
On Monday, state Rep. Eugene DePasquale introduced legislation that would make Penn State subject to the full force of the state’s Right to Know Law.
Penn State, Temple, Pittsburgh and Lincoln universities all won carve-outs from the law in 2008, arguing that they should have the same status as private schools and institutions that receive public money. In light of the Sandusky case, which includes a possible cover-up by current and former Penn State officials, many have called for a change.
If university administrators knew their communications and spending records could ultimately be exposed to public review, “maybe it would have prevented certain actors at Penn State from covering [those alleged acts] up, or at least being perceived to have covered them up,” said DePasquale, a York Democrat.
“It’s clear now that we need to know what’s happening with that money,” DePasquale said. “I think the taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on.”
More unanswered questions
The unanswered list is lengthening.
Erickson said at the Nov. 11 news conference that the status of former athletic director Tim Curley would be discussed in the coming week.
Patriot-News reporters have posed several other questions to university spokesman Bill Mahon and his staff and received either a response of “I don’t know” or no reply at all.
Once he was told The Patriot-News was writing about transparency, Mahon said our questions had nothing to do with transparency on Penn State’s part.
He said Spanier and Paterno would have to be contacted directly for answers to questions about their futures, and said Spanier was given 75 days from Nov. 9 to move out of the president’s house.
Tim Curley’s status hasn’t changed, he said Monday.
That leaves the following details unexplained:
What “intensive study or research,” as required in Penn State policy, will Spanier conduct on his one-year sabbatical from teaching?
Will Paterno teach a class, since he is still tenured faculty?
Why did a university spokeswoman say there would be a national search for a university president and soon after say Erickson would remain president?
What were the reasons for the board’s decision to fire Paterno and force the resignation of Spanier?
Why won’t the 1998 police report that detailed a six-week investigation into Sandusky showering with two boys be released?
What are the severance separation packages for Paterno and Spanier?
Who at the university met with Department of Education representatives when they began a Clery Act investigation last week?
The university also declined to answer when asked Erickson’s age.
Awaiting an Erickson interview
Soon after the word “interim” was removed from his title, The Patriot-News requested a sit-down with Erickson and submitted several questions about his vision for Penn State.
Two weeks’ worth of email requests were ignored. On Monday, Mahon said Erickson would be granting some interviews this week.
Erickson had been the executive vice president, one of Spanier’s top lieutenants.
But in an interview after his appointment, Erickson said he first heard about the Sandusky scandal on the Thursday before charges were filed.
There was a Patriot-News article that stated Paterno, Gary Schultz and Curley had testified in January, plus follow-up stories talking about thousands of university documents being subpoenaed during the spring and summer. The in-house counsel for Penn State was present for much of the testimony.
Ousted President Spanier’s support staff and top administrators, including his spokespeople and his vice presidents, remain in their jobs.
The interim president was hired from within. Newly appointed athletic director David Joyner was a member of the board of trustees.
And even though administrators point to the internal investigation being led by Freeh as a commitment to transparency, Freeh said the public should not expect interim reports.
Staff writers Charlie Thompson, Jan Murphy and Jeff Frantz contributed to this report.
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