UNIVERSITY PARK — The careers of Penn State President Graham Spanier and legendary football coach Joe Paterno came to an unceremonious end Wednesday amidst a sex abuse scandal, prompting thousands of students to flood the streets of downtown State College.
In a nighttime press conference at The Penn Stater, trustees announced that Spanier was no longer the university’s president, and Paterno was no longer the head football coach.
Rod Erickson, who had been executive vice president, is acting president, and Tom Bradley was named interim head coach.
Thousands of students filled the streets around Beaver Canyon, later
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moving toward Old Main, chanting and becoming increasingly belligerent as police donned riot gear and tried to control the crowds. At times, students shouted obscenities against the media and Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator arrested Saturday on charges of sexually abusing eight boys.
Students also were seen on balconies, atop parking garages and in yards, some drinking and some shooting fireworks. Witnesses said some rocks and bottles were thrown, a lamppost was toppled and a news van was knocked over, its windows kicked out.
At about 12:20 a.m., the university sent a text alert that police had issued a dispersal order, requiring that everyone leave Old Main and downtown State College, and the crowd appeared to be following orders.
Police later closed College Avenue to traffic.
The trustees’ decision, which the board said was unanimous, stems from the charges against Sandusky, charges of perjury against two administrators and accusations that university officials did not do enough when they became aware of one such instance of abuse by Sandusky.
John Surma, vice chairman of the trustees, said the past few days “have been absolutely terrible for the entire Penn State community.”
“The outrage that we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological suffering that allegedly took place,” said Surma, who is overseeing the university’s handling of the matter.
He said it was “in the best interest of the university that a change of leadership to deal with the difficult issues we are facing” take place. Trustees agreed Spanier would no longer be president, and that, effective immediately, Paterno would no longer be head coach. The latter announcement drew gasps at the press conference.
Paterno, who was in his 62nd year coaching at Penn State, had earlier Wednesday announced he would retire at the end of this football season, to the sadness and dismay of many. Wednesday evening, he was notified of his dismissal by phone.
Sandusky was arraigned on sex abuse charges Saturday and two administrative officials were arraigned on charges of perjury related to their testimony before the grand jury investigating Sandusky. Paterno is not expected to face charges in the case.
Surma said the trustees wanted to act “swiftly and decisively but also to be thorough and fair.”
Surma did not address the specific charges against Sandusky, who is accused of sexually abusing boys he met through a nonprofit for underprivileged children that he founded in 1977.
“I can’t characterize individual behavior. It would be totally unfair of me,” Surma said when asked what Paterno had done wrong, later adding: “We thought that because of the difficulties that have engulfed our universities, and they are great, that it was necessary for us to make a change in the leadership and set a course for a new direction.”
He defended the board’s decision, saying it was necessary for the long-term interest of the university and that trustees did the best job they could.
Surma said he hopes that students, alumni, and everyone who cares about Penn State would agree that what trustees are doing “is in the best long-term interest of the university, which is much larger than the athletic programs.”
The university is investigating how it handled the report by a one-time graduate student, now identified as assistant coach Mike McQueary, that he saw Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in a shower. McQueary reported the incident to Paterno, who in turn reported it to Curley, according to the grand jury presentment.
When asked why Curley is being allowed to remain on administrative leave when Paterno and Spanier are ousted, Surma said that, while not talking about that specifically, “there are a number of matters that over time will get resolved.”
On the question of student reaction to the decision, Surma said trustees’ job is to make the determination and they did the best they could.
One member of the media at the press conference commented that “campus is going to burn.”
More than 250 students watched the press conference on TV in the HUBRobeson Center on campus, some moved to tears upon learning Paterno was fired.
“I was studying at the HUB when I noticed the crowd growing,” said Ryan Mathews, a junior from Pittsburgh. “It’s not fair. They even said they didn’t have all the information. Paterno shouldn’t go. Spanier getting fired is in Penn State’s best interest.”
Freshman Natalie Yoder said Penn Staters must stick together.
“I’m appalled,” she said. “This is a terrible and corrupt situation. It was an all-or- nothing problem, but Joe’s leaving is the biggest heartbreak to PSU.”
Freshman Maddie Stein agreed Paterno’s firing was unfair.
“Paterno should at least be able to finish out the season,” she said. “Spanier should be ashamed. Graham was in a higher authority (than Paterno).”
Some people took to Twitter with their reactions, including Penn State’s student body President T.J. Bard.
“... I have the utmost trust in the BOT. They know far more than I ever will. They have & always will have PSU best interest in mind,” he said in a tweet following the press conference.
Spanier, who was university president for 16 years, was not at the press conference. Instead, a staff member handed out a statement.
“Our great university has been rocked by serious charges against a former coach,” Spanier said. “The presentment by the Attorney General describes acts that should never be tolerated or ignored. I was stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility or by someone associated with the university.”
Also Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced it will investigate whether university officials broke federal law by not reporting sexual abuse allegations.
Officials said Wednesday that they will look into whether the school violated the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to prepare, publish and distribute an annual security report disclosing all criminal offenses reported to campus security or local police.
“If these allegations of sexual abuse are true then this is a horrible tragedy for those young boys,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “If it turns out that some people at the school knew of the abuse and did nothing or covered it up, that makes it even worse.”
Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Tom Corbett, speaking at the signing of a bill banning texting while driving, urged Penn State trustees to act firmly and swiftly in response to the scandal.
“There is a legal issue and there is a moral issue,” said Corbett, echoing similar comments made Monday by his state police commissioner. “I am personally disappointed in the lack of action and had to contain that for the last two-plus years. The board is going to address that.”
Corbett, who is a member of the university board of trustees, said he rearranged his schedule so he could be in State College today and Friday for the trustee’s scheduled meeting.
Sandusky’s attorney, while maintaining he is innocent of the sexual abuse charges against him, said he was “devastated” by the developments.
“He is saddened by what is happening to the reputation of Penn State,” said Joe Amendola, who spoke with Sandusky on Wednesday morning. “He feels absolutely awful. They’re taking down an entire athletic department.”
The evening’s announcement followed several days of uncertainty in the community and silence from Old Main.
Wednesday trustees met behind closed doors at The Penn Stater before making the announcement.
Meanwhile, about 15 students gathered with signs at Old Main to await trustees’ arrival Wednesday night, hoping to send a message to them, the public and the media that the story should focus on the young, alleged victims.
“We feel the attention has been swayed to JoePa and football,” said geography graduate student Jamie Shinn, asking for attention on the children. “We just want to make sure the light shines on them and continues to shine on them when the national media goes home.”
CDT staffers Mike Dawson and Cliff White; correspondent Kevin Cirilli; and the Associated Press contributed to this report.