More than two years into the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State alumni strongly believe in the university’s academic excellence and are confident the university can restore the public’s trust.
They also strongly support a controversial topic: official university recognition of late coach Joe Paterno.
Those are a sampling of the feelings from some 1,297 Penn State alumni who participated in a survey in December that covered a wide range of university topics. The survey was the third the Alumni Association has commissioned since the Sandusky scandal to gauge attitudes of the alumni population.
The firm StrategyOne has conducted all the surveys, and the latest findings are online at http://alumni.psu.edu/about_us/2014-alumni-opinion-survey.
The survey results were published in January, but the university had not had a public discussion about them until the board of trustees meeting earlier this month.
Overall, the latest survey gives good news to champions of the university’s mission, as positive feelings are still evident among those surveyed. However, the results clearly show the events of the scandal have not yet been forgotten or forgiven.
The margin of error was plus or minus 2.72 percent in most cases.
Sixty percent of the respondents were men, almost two-thirds of those surveyed graduated in the 1980s or earlier, and the majority of them are 51 or older. Sixty-nine percent of the alumni live in the Northeast.
According to the findings, 81 percent of the alumni felt strongly that Penn State should recognize Paterno for his 61 years of service to the university.
Here’s how the question was posed: The alumni were asked to rate on a scale of zero to 10 how much they agreed with the statement that the university should publicly honor Paterno for his service. A 10 meant they completely agreed.
By far, the most common answer was a 10, with 70 percent of the alumni completely agreeing with the statement. Another 11 percent rang in with strong support by giving either an eight or a nine.
There weren’t that many who strongly disagreed with the statement. Just 2 percent gave a zero, signifying that they completely disagreed about honoring Paterno. And 4 percent of the respondents gave a response from a one to a four.
Alumni strongly agreed with the Paterno question in the two previous surveys in May and December 2012.
In the December 2012 survey, 75 percent felt strongly.
The May 2012 survey, taken just months after Paterno was fired and then died — had the greatest affirmative response, with 87 percent of alumni strongly supporting a public recognition of the legendary coach.
After several board reforms — such as making committee meetings open, adding a public comment period and expanding a trustee conflict of interest policy — about 40 percent of those surveyed said they believed the university is committed to openness and transparency. They were asked how strongly they agree with that on a scale of one to 10.
Alumni are confident the university will rebuild trust, with 66 percent saying they strongly agree with that statement. It’s up slightly from December 2012, when 65 percent felt that way, and from 63 percent in May 2012.
Just 1 percent of those surveyed thought there was no chance at all the university would rebuild trust.
In other scandal-related metrics, only 16 percent of alumni said they have strong amount of trust in the board of trustees, which has been subject to alumni ire over the firing of Paterno and other decisions in the aftermath of the scandal. In other words, 16 percent of the alumni scored their trust in the board with either an eight, nine or 10 on the zero to 10 scale.
By contrast, 15 percent of the alumni gave the board a “zero,” or no trust whatsoever. Another 5 percent gave a one.
At the board meeting last week, trustee Ted Brown joked that the board’s approval rating was higher than that of Congress. But a consultant offered a contextualization — that boards score low on trust because their members aren’t the public faces, although that’s become less and less the norm of post-Sandusky Penn State.
Low trust in the board continues a trend from the previous surveys, which showed 13 percent had strong feelings of the trust for the board in May 2012 and 16 percent in December 2012.
When it comes to trust in the administration, more alumni trust them than the board, at 28 percent.
The scandal had another effect on the alumni, according to the survey: 23 percent said they would not donate to the university because of the scandal.
When asked about positive feelings about Penn State, the alumni’s most common response was the university’s academics and faculty, at 55 percent. That figure has stayed in the 50 percent range since the first survey.
And when it comes to keeping up with the university news, a little more than a quarter of the alumni were paying close attention to the search for the new president, which ended Feb. 17 with the hiring of Florida State President and former Penn State dean Eric Barron.
Two-thirds of the alumni said they keep up with Penn State football.
Two alumni groups unaffiliated with the alumni association have differing takeaways from the survey.
Members of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, who’ve been critical of the board of trustees and have endorsed reform-minded trustee candidates, said the survey shows that alumni side with them on scandal-related issues.
Group spokeswoman Maribeth Schmidt pointed to statistics from the survey that indicate a lack of confidence in the board and the support for Paterno.
“Penn State alumni are extremely concerned that the people currently controlling Penn State have shown themselves to be inadequate to the task of governing the university,” said Schmidt. “They know this must be fixed. At the same time, alumni are extremely supportive and proud of our students, academics, and culture of ‘success with honor.’ ”
PS4RS will endorse three candidates in the alumni trustee election. Its membership is working to identify who those three will be out of candidates Rudy Glocker, former state Sen. Bob Jubelirer, Gavin Keirans, Al Lord, Alice Pope and Vincent Tedesco III.
On the other hand, the fledging alumni group Upward State, which is endorsing its own slate of candidates for the alumni trustee election, looks to stats such as the number of those polled who feel positive about the university and are optimistic about where it’s heading.
Upward State co-founder Jim Carnes recognizes the Paterno sentiment and the desire for board change, which he said are two priorities among the group’s platform.
“What the survey really tells us is that fixing past wrongs while keeping focused on the future aren’t mutually exclusive,” Carnes said. “Alumni are really responding to the Upward State message of positivity and optimism — and it’s not at all surprising when you read these survey results.”
Upward State is endorsing trustee candidates Dan Cocco, Matt Schuyler and Julie Harris McHugh.