UNIVERSITY PARK — The search for Penn State’s next president appears to have hit some untold bump in the road that has sent the university back to the drawing board to consider more candidates and a longer timetable.
Days after the university seemed on the doorstep of naming the successor to President Rodney Erickson, board of trustees Chairman Keith Masser said Friday that “all options are open” in the much-watched search process. Masser wouldn’t call it a complete rebooting of the process, though he conceded that the board was not even at the stage in which the search team was looking at specific strengths of candidates.
“We’re not down to that level anymore,” he said, answering if the trustees were zeroing in on potential presidential candidates without a strong academic background because the university had recently hired its provost and academic leader, Nick Jones.
Penn State was expected to approve the hiring of the next university president during a public meeting on Friday, but earlier this week, the meeting was abruptly called off in what a cryptic university announcement said was for additional consideration of a personnel matter.
More than 20 trustees still came to campus for an executive session Friday morning, and the university released a statement after the private session that added some context to the situation that had been a source of confusion and a cause for speculation.
In the statement, the trustees broadened the timetable for selecting the next president. They went from the previous target date — by the Nov. 22 board meeting — to before Erickson’s contract expires on June 30.
At the most, that’s an eight-month difference.
Just last week, Masser went before the University Faculty Senate with the original November timetable and reported that the search had been moving forward on a “positive trajectory.”
The statement Friday also addressed why the public meeting was canceled, beyond what was originally offered up midweek. Now, the university has said the meeting needed to be called off “when it was determined that more time for consideration of possible candidates was needed.”
That’s “candidates,” plural.
The board was positive with the direction of the search, according to the remarks made in the official statement.
“The search process is progressing and will continue until the best possible person to lead Penn State is selected and presented to the full board for a vote,” Masser’s remarks said. “We fully expect that our efforts will ensure we attract a president who can truly maximize the potential of our exceptional university.”
Friday afternoon, before Masser headed into closed-door interviews for governance consultants, he was optimistic, pointing to new, positive developments that may attract different candidates. He referred to the NCAA lifting its scholarship penalty against the university because of the reforms put in place and the university closing in on its $2 billion fundraising goal.
“We are four or five months later than we started, and Penn State is an improved position,” he said.
There have been theories about the mystery surrounding what happened this week to change the course of the presidential search process. Some speculate that the board leadership put the brakes on after trustee Anthony Lubrano railed against the board for not keeping the ones who are not on the search committee in the dark.
Lubrano said Friday he was able to raise his frustrations about the search process during the executive session. He wouldn’t elaborate, only saying the session was a “lively and healthy debate.”
Trustee Karen Peetz, who’s leading the search committee, said in the statement that the process had been as inclusive as possible.
Masser defended the process on Thursday as the one the board approved, and on Friday, he indicated the hiccup was something unforeseen and uncontrollable, though he declined to elaborate.
Erickson took over Nov. 9, 2011, after Graham Spanier was fired by the board days after the Jerry Sandusky scandal erupted and cast a dark cloud over campus.
The university has taken steps to move on from the scandal, such as adopting dozens of governance and security reforms and agreeing to pay Sandusky victims almost $60 million, but the dark cloud has not completely retreated.
Alumni anger over the firing of Joe Paterno in 2011 has not gone away, and a lawsuit brought by the Paterno family and several trustees, Nittany Lion players and coaches and Penn State professors has taken aim at reversing the NCAA sanctions against Penn State, which include the bowl ban and the erasure of 111 of Paterno’s wins.
Uniting the fractured university community will be one of the tasks the president will face, and the challenge was spelled out in a candidate profile that was developed by the head-hunting firm Isaacson Miller, which assisted in the search.