STATE COLLEGE — Penn State trustee Paul Suhey admits relieving Joe Paterno of his head coaching duties in November 2011 over a late-night phone call was not the right tact.
Stephanie Deviney, another trustee, is certain the whole board feels that way.
“We apologize, we screwed it up as far as how we delivered the message,” Suhey said Friday in an interview. “Our decision, we’re not going to go back on. But we messed that up big time.
“People are still so hurt by that, and you know, damn it, we screwed it up.”
The Paterno decision will go down in the annals as the trigger of when Penn State alumni and diehard fans turned against the board, and the anger has not relented. They email the trustees, write letters — even call them out in advertisements in this newspaper.
But, four trustees, in an interview with the Centre Daily Times’ editorial board, said they are committed to turning the corner, opening up and building on the progress the university has already seen in responding in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal. The trustees — Suhey, Deviney, board Chairman Keith Masser and Paul Silvis — said they hope the university community will meet them in the middle as part of moving forward.
“We hear criticism that we don’t care what alumni have to say and we’re not listening. That’s not true, not true,” said Deviney, the board’s vice chairwoman who faces 38 other candidates for re-election this spring. “We’re trying to get where we need to be, and this is the first step.”
‘We wanted ... to go after them’
Back in July, before the Freeh report came out, Silvis thought the NCAA had no reason to bring harsh sanctions down on Penn State.
He thought the university was doing everything it needed to do that was in line with what the NCAA wanted in reaction to the Sandusky scandal. Silvis said the university president, Rodney Erickson, kept the NCAA president, Mark Emmert, apprised of what was going on in Happy Valley.
But then the Freeh report came out in July, and that all changed. Senior leaders, including Paterno and top senior administrators Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz were accused in the report of concealing child sex abuse allegations against Sandusky.
The NCAA used the Freeh report as the basis for its unprecedented sanctions.
“We had no idea the NCAA was going to come out as hard as they did on us,” said Silvis, a businessman who runs the company SilcoTek. “It was told to me the week before that Rod had conversations with Mark Emmert and that Mark had said that they would not be doing anything to Penn State because it would akin to shooting roadkill.”
Silvis said he didn’t know about the sanctions until after Erickson signed the consent decree, with the specter of the so-called “death penalty” hanging over Penn State if he balked. Deviney said the president signed it and “we’re going to abide by it.”
But doesn’t mean the trustees were happy with the decision. Silvis said the trustees grilled the general counsel and the president during discussions after the decision was made.
But the trustees said their responsibility is to what was best for the university, and that is why they didn’t sue the NCAA or speak out against the sanctions.
“We wanted so bad to go after them,” Suhey said of the NCAA. “But we didn’t. We had to take consideration of the whole university.”
These trustees said they are holding out hope that the progress the university has made will open some eyes at the NCAA to eventually soften or scale back on the sanctions, such as the four-year bowl ban, the $60 million fine or scholarship reductions.
“We have enough people that know people that hopefully that can happen someday,” Silvis said.
‘Child safety on campus’
The university’s progress has been marked by many public events and public announcements.
In late October, hundreds of academics, psychologists and advocates made their way to State College amid the remnants of Hurricane Sandy for an academic conference about child sexual abuse. It featured clinical experts as well as prominent abuse survivors Elizabeth Smart and Sugar Ray Leonard.
Penn State employees are working to implement almost all of the 119 recommendations in the Freeh report, which include the hirings of the athletics integrity officer to oversee compliance with NCAA rules and regulations and the first ethics and compliance director. Penn State has provided mandatory reporter training to 10,000 employees, and there is policy that requires background checks for new employees and another a that limits employees from having one-on-one contact with minors.
The NCAA’s appointed monitor, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, gave glowing reports about Penn State’s work to put in place the Freeh recommendations and the requirements in the consent decree.
“As campus safety is to Virginia Tech, we will become with respect to child safety on campus,” Deviney said. “And I think that’s a really great thing that we need to really all be proud of.”
Deviney, a lawyer from Chester County, also looks at other steps that show how far the university has come.
ees get a daily report about Penn State in the news — good and bad — so they are in the know, and as Deviney said, more connected because she does not live close to Penn State.
Suhey praised the move to have the general counsel position, now filled by Steve Dunham, report directly to the board. Silvis said it seemed as though the previous counsel, former trustee Cynthia Baldwin, reported to former president Graham Spanier.
Silvis said a lot of work has gone into making sure officials are on the same page when it comes to contracts. The details and dollar figures of football coach Bill O’Brien’s contract were released upon his hiring in January last year.
They’re also set to consider changes to their governance structure, such as whether the president will have voting powers. The board’s committee for governance and long-range planning will hash out the governance recommendations on Thursday in Hershey and refer changes for a board vote Friday, Masser said.
Other positive moves the trustees highlighted include expanding the nu
mber of committees and making the committee meetings open to the public, and adopting a public comment period.
The trustees say they did not fire Paterno, thought they stood behind it as the right decision given the details of the presentment.
“We retired him three weeks early,” Suhey said.
The trustees said the issue over how Paterno’s coaching career abruptly ended is one of the public misconceptions out there dogging them.
Another, they said, is a belief that the trustees know every single detail about what’s going on at Penn State. Or, on the flipside, some think they are too far removed to know anything about what’s going on at ground zero.
“Sometimes people think we’re all the way up and that we’re secluded and we don’t want t
o talk to people,” Deviney said. “I know at least from my perspective that’s not true. I don’t think we’d be here today if we felt that way.”
Another criticism aimed at the trustees is that they did not stand up to the NCAA concerning the harsh sanctions and their impact on Penn State.
“I think people didn’t think we were fighting for the university,” Suhey said. “But we were fighting for the university, honestly. Deep down, we were trying to do everything we could.”
Another misconception, Suhey and Silvis said, is that folks think board members are ducking questions from the media.
“I think people think that we’re hiding things or we have special information. We don’t,” Suhey said. “Everything we know is pretty much there now, too.”
And Suhey said they’ve been accused of not reading the Freeh report even though they have.
‘Change the dialogue’
Trustee Ken Frazier was late for another meeting after the trustees gathered in January. He took time to talk to the people who spoke out during a public comment period at the regular board meeting.
To Silvis, that was a pivotal moment to help “change the dialogue” away from the divisive issues toward those that will help the university community come together and heal.
Ever since the board offered a public comment period, people have fired off criticisms about the way the board has handled key decisions. Some call for complete turnover on the board; others want the board to honor Paterno.
Some are quite angry as they talk. Others are more collected.
Silvis said he’s taken time to sit down with people — those who will be respectful, he said — to flesh out the events and decisions since November 2011.
“One of the things I always say when I meet with alumni, disgruntled alumni or somebody who’s ready to rip my head off about something, I say, ‘look, let’s agree about one thing before we start,’ ” Silvis said. “ ‘I love Penn State, I care about Penn State. I’m trying to do the best I can, and you do, too. You can’t say you care more than I care.’ ”
He’s had these sit-downs here and in Florida.
“At the end, they usually go, ‘wow,’ and shake their head,” he said.
‘A better understanding’
Deviney, who said she is active with the Brandywine, Berks and Great Valley campuses, has had similar experiences.
She knows the board faces a tough challenge, and she wonders if she will be able to fi
nish out her term as the board’s vice chairwoman or if she will be voted off. She said she fears some fans or alumni may never change their mind about the board, and the board will never be able to do what people want the board to do.
But talking things out is a start.
She met with one alumnus who a week later wrote to her apologizing for venting a year’s worth of his frustrations, she said.
“At the end of the conversation, we may still disagree about it, but at least there’s a better understanding,” she said.
Silvis said he would love to be able to refocus on the issues that haven’t gone away that are not related to the Sandusky scandal, such as keeping tuition affordable. Then there’s the looming search for a new president, plus high-level searches for the provost and dean positions in the colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Engineering.
But it’s that top position that he hopes will settle things down.
“I think when we bring the new president in ... we’ll have a new person with a new focus that can really move us forward,” Silvis said.