A day after former Penn State President Graham Spanier was indicted on felony charges related to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case, current President Rodney Erickson told a group of journalists Friday that the university faces ongoing controversy as the legal process continues to unfold.
Erickson, who took over as university president after Spanier was removed last November, addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Friday, the same day that two other former administrators, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, were arrainged on new charges that include obstruction of justice and child endangerment. They join Spanier in what Attorney General Linda Kelly dubbed a “conspiracy of silence” for their alleged cover-up of child sexual abuse by former assistant coach Sandusky in 1998 and 2001.
Sandusky is facing 30 to 60 years in prison after a jury found him guilty on 45 of 48 of sexually abusing boys over a 15-year period.
“The legal process continues to unfold as evidenced by the attorney general’s further charges leveled” Thursday, Erickson told the press club, regarding Kelly’s charges.
“Obviously, all of us at Penn State have been deeply hurt, deeply moved, at everything that had transpired. (Thursday) was no exception,” he said.
In his speech, Erickson largely shied away from expounding on what he called an “agonizing year” of the Sandusky scandal or the ripple effect it remains to have on the university. Instead, he chose to highlight the university’s accomplishment in not only academics, but in instituting new policies to ensure the university is safe. When the university’s safety was breached by Sandusky, Erickson was deeply troubled.
He recalled learning about the “repugnant news that a former assistant coach had molested young boys, in some instances on our campus.”
“Immediately, as they did with all of you, our thoughts turned to the victims of these horrific crimes,” Erickson said. “And, in the days that followed, we saw the removal of the senior leaders of our university and athletic program, including the popular president and iconic football coach.”
Erickson said that as the scandal was unfolding, his retirement was in his sights, as he was serving out his career as executive vice president and provost.
In an instant, everything changed. He was asked to take over leadership of the university. Justifying why he took the helm was easy.
“I’ve devoted 35 years of my professional life to Penn State,” Erickson said. “My children attended Penn State. I believe deeply in our mission and our ability to contribute to the greater good. I knew I needed to step up and serve. I also knew that Penn State is a great university that will endure as it has always endured, will recover, and will continue to advance teaching, research and service.”
In the wake of the scandal, Erickson said the university has implemented more than a third of the recommendations outlined in the Louis Freeh report, a scathing document that outlined where the university had let its guard down and one that created a basis for a host of crippling and unprecedented NCAA sanctions that included a $60 million fine, four-year bowl ban and the vacation of football wins from 1998-2011.
“What we discovered, however, is that despite our staffing, there were gaps in the system, and we lacked a central compliance office where these efforts can be coordinated,” Erickson said.
In response, the university hired a compliance officer to ensure Penn State complies with the Clery Act; it created the Athletics Integrity Agreement between the NCAA and Penn State, which is being overseen by Sen. George Mitchell; it created the Center for the Protection of Children at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and solidified its partnership with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
“Earlier this week we completed the first Penn State National Conference on Child Sexual Abuse,” he said. “This forum brought together leaders and experts from law enforcement, pediatric medicine, prevention research and education.”
Also the Penn State Network for Child Protection and Well-Being, which comprises 35 faculty members with interdisciplinary expertise, was created to accelerate the pace of discovery by linking research and practice, and to build the network with additional researchers, practitioners and teachers,” he said.
Erickson defended the university — and his decision to sign the NCAA sanctions.
“Accepting the NCAA consent decree was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in a 40-year professional career,” he said. “I simply felt the death penalty was too devastating for the university and community. And even though the sanctions imposed were unprecedented and crippling in many ways, it was the better alternative and also allowed us to mover forward as a university. So I made that decision, and I stand by that decision.”
Erickson would not comment on whether he believed Spanier was withholding information from authorities, citing the ongoing investigation and continuing litigation. He did say that in hindsight, the university should have followed up with the allegations more quickly.
Also, Erickson addressed the instances that allowed Sandusky to continue to use university facilities — where some of the abuse against the boys occurred. He said that while he wasn’t a part of the decision that would allow the former coach access into campus buildings, in hindsight, more should have been done.
“Well, clearly, there should have been additional follow-up,” he said. “We know that. That’s really why we’ve done so much over the course of the last year to put these kinds of policies in place that we have. We have secured facilities in new ways, we have changed the ways in which retired faculty and staff have access to our facilities, we’ve implemented background checks not only for our own faculty and staff but for people who are volunteers coming onto campus for many, many reasons. We’ve strengthened our mandatory reporting laws or procedures related to the Clery Act, and certainly within our police services, our investigative services, we’ve strengthened all of those processes and procedures that in the future we believe will make it very unlikely that this sort of thing could happen again.”
Erickson said he plans on retiring in 2014. He said his main goal is to help transition his successor, which the university board of trustees will begin a search for soon.
“My major goal is really to set the stage for my successor so that she or he can come in and really take the reins of this great university that is Penn State, continue to drive us forward and do wonderful things, “ he said. “My goal is really to make that happen and continue to serve our faculty, staff, students and alumni in the best possible way I can during the time I have left.”