UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s time for Penn State to take an offensive approach to repairing its image, the board of trustees heard Sunday.
That was the advice university public relations coordinator Richard Edelman delivered as the trustees wrapped up a weekend retreat Sunday morning at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.
“We have been playing defense for the last four or five months,” Edelman told the board.
“The Sandusky trial, the Freeh report, the NCAA sanctions ... all we could do was be responsive,” he said. “Now it’s time to make the pivot.”
That could start as early as Penn State’s first home football game. Edelman’s presentation led to an unplanned discussion about using the Sept. 1 game to showcase the university’s academic achievements.
“The first game the national media attention will be like no other game,” said board member Anthony Lubrano. “This isn’t football, this is an academic institution. Why not play up on that?”
Suggestions from board members ranged from putting messages on the scoreboard to buying television advertisement time.
The board is seeking to take advantage of a “captive audience” tuning in to the first game since the NCAA levied sanctions against Penn State.
“Then 100,000 people (at Beaver Stadium) see that on the screen,” board member Ira Lubert said. “You will get standing ovations. If you want a pivotal change, that’s the way to do it.”
Still, Edelman warned there will be “tough days,” referencing a report last week that attorney’s for Victim 1 of Jerry Sandusky had filed a lawsuit against the university seeking damages related to the Freeh report.
“But the key point ... is you cannot go into your tortoise shell and wait for things to change,” he said. “You have to now go out and begin the hard work of rebuilding the reputation of this great institution.”
Edelman recommended an “inside-out approach” — using students, faculty and alumni to tell the university’s story.
“Some of these are going to be small wins, and they are going to be incremental, but we must begin the process,” he said.
Nationally, he suggested sending board Chairwoman Karen Peetz and university President Rodney Erickson to give interviews before the one-year anniversary of Jerry Sandusky’s arrest in November.
Sandusky was convicted in June on 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Penn State’s internal investigation, the Freeh report, implicated top university officials Gary Schultz, Tim Curley, Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, in an alleged cover-up. Paterno died in January from lung cancer and Curley and Schultz await trial on perjury and failure to report abuse charges. Spanier recently spoke out in interviews calling the Freeh report “absolutely wrong.” The Freeh report findings led the NCAA to impose harsh sanctions against the university.
Those sanctions, including a $60 million fine, were not discussed in detail during the meeting.
Afterward, Peetz said the university and NCAA are still deciding who will administer a fund created with the money.
The board did take time Sunday to discuss the status of the university’s upcoming presidential search.
“I think this could well be one of the most defining activities of the university that will take place for many years to come,” said Erickson, who plans to retire by July 2014.
Trustee James Broadhurst said the university hopes to hire Erickson’s replacement at least six months before that.
The search is expected to formally start in January, and could take up to a year to complete, Broadhurst said.
“The search process for a president is typically a fairly lengthy process,” Erickson said. “So I’m pleased that the board is engaging this with some deliberate speed.”
Leading up to the official announcement, the trustees will form a search committee from within their own ranks.
That group will help pick a screening committee composed of Penn State faculty and staff from University Park and the branch campuses and others, including an alumni representative.
“This is an undertaking that needs to be done expeditiously and effectively,” but also with the input of “a lot of voices — students, faculty, staff, alumni and others,” Erickson said.
Broadhurst said the search committee hopes to have a list of 10 to 15 candidates by next summer, and to start interviewing soon after.
Erickson said he will not actively participate in the search. He said it’s “a long-standing principle in higher education” that sitting presidents take no part in the search for a replacement.
“I will certainly be available for consultation or help in any way that I can, but I also do not intend in any way to be in the way or a distraction for my successor, whoever that might be” he said.
Erickson advised the board Sunday to “cast your net broadly” in the search. That came after several trustees said they hope business leaders are considered, not just high ranking officials at other universities.
“As far as I’m concerned, the fundamental qualification is ... the values they bring to the position, the values about higher education ... how they are able to interact with the core constituency of our faculty, students and staff,” Erickson said.
Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter