Penn State President Rodney Erickson: University’s reforms provide ‘best practices’ model

mdawson@centredaily.comSeptember 7, 2013 

— The reforms that Penn State has instituted since the Jerry Sandusky scandal exposed faults, shortcomings and weaknesses have made the university a safer, better governed place, President Rodney Erickson said Friday.

Penn State is more than a year into a period of its history in which every move is under scrutiny because of the scandal. On Friday, the university received a report praising its efforts over the past year to implement changes to the way it operates.

Erickson, in an exclusive interview with the Centre Daily Times, said the reforms are a model for “best practices” at all universities, and he wants the reforms’ values and lessons to be ingrained in the culture here.

“What we’re really trying to accomplish as an institution is that we weave what we’ve done into the fabric of the institution,” Erickson said, “so that long after any individual or individuals have left the university, we’ll continue to operate under what I believe is a set of best practices for governance, for administration, for policies, for operations.”

The reforms came out of the Freeh report, which listed 119 recommendations for improving governance, compliance and other operations. Penn State has largely completed them and was required by the NCAA, as part of the sanctions, to have finished them by the end of this year.

The report on Friday from NCAA athletics integrity monitor George Mitchell said Penn State is expected to make the deadline, although the university has been allowed to extend some of the recommendations into next year because more time is needed. An example of that is the roll-out of a new human resources information system, which Erickson called a major, multimillion-dollar project.

Erickson, when asked to assess the most important reforms, looked to the measures that enhance child safety on campus. After all, the grand jury investigation into Sandusky said the former coach had unfettered access to athletic facilities after he retired in 1999 and that’s where he took young boys to work out and shower.

In response, Penn State adopted new policies, such as one that prohibits adults from having one-on-one contact with unrelated minors. In addition, Penn State requires new employees to go through background checks, and the university has provided mandatory child abuse reporting training to tens of thousands of employees, students and volunteers who interact with children on campus.

I don’t believe there’s any more important thing we can do (than) to ensure the safety of children and ensure the safety of everyone who either works, studies or comes to the university and any of campuses to participate in various activities,” said Erickson, who took over in November 2011 and said he will retire by the end of June 2014.

The university has also made changes to its athletic facilities, such as the additions of swipe card access machines and cameras. In addition, the renovation to the Intramural Building on Curtin Road will reduce the number of entrances to the facility and give the university more control over who walks in, he said.

Other athletic facilities, such as Rec Hall, will need infrastructure changes to enable the amount of control desired in the post-Sandusky Penn State, Erickson said.

The nature of the reforms implemented at Penn State has caught the eyes and ears of university administrators across the country. Erickson said each week Old Main fields calls from other universities whose leaders want to see a policy or get input on localizing the reforms.

“We have in many ways become the university that many others have looked to or at least were the catalyst in terms of them examining their own policies,” Erickson said. “The fact is that when some of our folks go to a national meeting on something, whether it’s a meeting of university attorneys or communications individuals, or so on, many of the things we are doing and have done as part of the Freeh recommendations are topics that just very naturally come up.”

The new Penn State that has arisen from the reforms has come with a hefty cost, but Erickson couldn’t pinpoint what it could be.

Some costs should be more straightforward, such as expanding the university’s in-house general counsel office or the creation of new positions, such as the athletics integrity officer or the Clery Act coordinator. But in other ways, the cost will be harder to calculate, as some employees had to handle different duties temporarily to accommodate the pressing work.

Not everyone has been on board with all the reforms, though.

Several reformist trustees have said, for instance, the governance reforms adopted a few months ago didn’t go far enough. The board shrank by two members after the university president’s and state governor’s voting powers were curbed, the quorum requirement was raised from 13 to 16, and put in place was a five-year waiting period before a trustee could be employed by the university.

The board also opened its committee meetings to the public.

Some of the trustees, including those elected over the past two years, want to see a smaller board or a change in the way certain sects of trustees are elected. Others want tighter term limits. Alumni also have supported the reformist trustees’ ideas of reform.

The board is exploring hiring a governance expert to help with zeroing in on those ideas that don’t have consensus.

Regardless of the difference of opinion, Erickson said the reforms have resulted in a preventative and proactive approach. And that’s where the value is, he said.

“If you prevent one problem, it’s been worth it,” he said.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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