From Penn State’s athletic department to the halls of Old Main, the university has long sought to control the public’s access to information about its inner workings.
It received $270 million from the state this year, but is able to choose whether to make details of its budget public.
It’s exempt from most requirements of the state Open Records Law. It needs only to disclose the salaries of its 25 highest-paid employees, the salaries of officers and directors and the information filed in its IRS Form 990.
Even information about money raised by the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon — the annual dance marathon that this year raised $9.59 million for children with cancer — is released at the whim of the university. A few years ago, Thon organizers began releasing a financial summary, but they still don’t identify individual donors.
Tucked among forested hills and surrounded by agricultural land, Penn State sits in the center of the state, isolated from major population centers — it’s quipped that it’s “equally inaccessible from all directions.” About 44,000 students go to school at University Park — about a third of Centre County’s entire population. The alumni association has the largest dues-paying membership of any in the country, and football plays a key role in that devotion.
That isolation has been shattered by the scandal that in the past two weeks has seen President Graham Spanier and iconic football coach Joe Paterno removed from their jobs, a former assistant coach charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over 15 years, and two university administrators charged with perjury and failure to report suspected abuse.
This control of information is abetted by a certain insularity, reflected in the unusually long tenures of the leaders at the center of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal — Spanier and Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance Gary Schultz. Curley and Schultz — who both face criminal charges and have stepped down from their positions — are also Penn State graduates.
Both Spanier and trustees Chairman Steve Garban — himself a Penn State graduate who captained the football team — cited their long-standing acquaintance when they issued statements declaring unconditional support for Curley and Schultz.
This culture may not have caused the sex abuse scandal. But some, including Gov. Tom Corbett, have suggested that it may have played a role in preventing suspicions about Sandusky from coming to light.
“It’s — the question should be, what is the openness at Penn State?” Corbett said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week. “And frankly, maybe at all major universities and even small universities, small colleges. ... We have lost the focus of what’s in the best interests of the child when you see something like this.”
Sandusky began his relationship with Penn State as a football player before becoming an assistant coach and growing into a defensive coaching legend.
It was a very common practice at the university, repeated by interim head coach Tom Bradley and even more recently by Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who told a grand jury he saw Sandusky rape a boy in a Penn State shower in 2002.
An analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that insularity extends to the school’s administrative offices.
Ten of the 18 members of Penn State’s President’s Council, which comprises the central administration, have been associated with the university for more than 15 years. It found that this insularity is further reflected in the education of the administrators, at least seven of whom have degrees from Penn State or have completed course work there.
The trustees appointed longtime Penn State insiders to succeed Spanier and Paterno. The new president, Rod Erickson, joined Penn State’s faculty in 1977 and has been working out of Old Main since 1995. Bradley played for the team in the 1970s, and has been on Paterno’s staff for 33 years.
Successful schools such as Penn State, with long-ingrained traditions, often pick from within the family, said Todd Turner, former athletic director at the University of Connecticut, North Carolina State University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Washington.
But there can be consequences to such comforts, said Turner, who now runs Collegiate Sports Associates, which assists schools with the hiring of athletics directors and coaches.
“It’s like having a family, and you get protective of that,” Turner said. “You cherish that. With that you become insulated from what’s going on around you in the world. There is no reason to question anything because it’s always worked.”
Vice President for University Relations Bill Mahon said he thinks the potential to be insulated is true of any organization.
“It’s important to look for ways to stay on top of that and have some self-reflection,” Mahon said. “I can guarantee you we’ve been doing some self-reflection like never before.”
Lack of access
Penn State received about $270 million in state funding this year, including $240 million for general education support. That adds up to about 7 percent of its total budget and 14 percent of its general education revenue.
Yet it has to make very little information about its inner functions available to the state’s taxpayers.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said Penn State lobbied for exclusions under the Right to Know Law when it was updated in 2008. Penn State and the other state-related universities have a special exemption that prevents the public from accessing the schools’ emails, phone records and other records that many other universities must provide.
“Our position is the more access, the better, not just with regards to Penn State, but with all state agencies in general,” Melewsky said. “Without access, there’s not accountability. The public really has a problem holding public officials accountable, and that’s the problem.”
Spanier went before the state House Government Committee in August 2007 and said the school would lose millions of dollars if it was forced to abide by the proposed state open records law. Donors would stop giving money to the school if they knew their identities were going to be made public, he pleaded with state legislators.
Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, said she always found Spanier’s vigorous fight to keep the records private odd. Now with the growing scandal engulfing her alma mater, she said she can’t help wondering whether Spanier’s testimony was solely based on a desire to protect the integrity of the school and its donors.
“Or was it driven by the explosive investigation that’s been lurking right behind the scenes here?” she asked.
Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said a lot of public universities try to carve out large exceptions for themselves from open government laws by saying they conflict with federal privacy laws.
He said the situation in Delaware is similar to that of Penn State. “The university gets hundreds of millions of dollars of tax money, but claims it’s exempt from open records law because it’s not really a state university,” Bunting said. “Is that bad public policy? Yes.”
State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, wants to see Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law changed to cover Penn State and the other state-related universities — Lincoln, Temple and the University of Pittsburgh — in the same way that state-owned schools are covered.
DePasquale said it’s something he’s wanted to see for quite some time. That battle was lost when the state revamped its open records law in 2008, but he said it’s clear that changes are needed to ensure that the state-related universities operate under the same rules as public agencies.
“The best disinfectant is sunlight,” he said.
The way forward
The degree of openness has been an ongoing issue as the university struggles to deal with the aftermath of the sex abuse allegations that some are calling the biggest scandal in the history of higher education.
When Penn State trustees met to decide the fate of Paterno and Spanier on Nov. 9, they didn’t tell the media where and when that session would take place. Normally, Penn State advertises the time and location of its meetings and opens them to the public, but it can hold emergency meetings without notice.
University officials didn’t provide any information on what was being discussed or when any information would be provided to the public until trustees hastily called a press conference shortly after 10 p.m. to announce Spanier and Paterno were no longer president and head coach, respectively.
After one closed trustees meeting, Spanier avoided reporters and students who had gathered outside by leaving through a side exit and ducking into a waiting van driven by his press aide.
Jon Lozano, president of the Graduate Student Association, said that in the days leading up to the trustees’ announcement, there was frustration among students about a lack of communication.
“People needed to have an opportunity to hear the facts. ... Unfortunately, at first at least, the university wasn’t doing a good job getting those facts out there,” Lozano said. “I realize they were being careful and there was an ongoing legal investigation, but even saying, ‘We can’t communicate on this and this, but here’s what we can tell you,’ I think that would have helped a lot.”
Mahon said the university did the best it could in a time of turmoil.
“The trustees needed to do some really important work on short notice,” he said. “I think they did a terrific job acting as quickly as they did.
“It was sudden and when things that big happen that suddenly, it’s going to be imperfect all around,” he said.
One of the university’s first moves, made the day after Sandusky was arraigned on sex abuse charges, was to bring in Ketchum, a global, New York-based public relations firm, to assist with its response to the scandal. Mahon said that getting assistance from an outside firm is a normal step for an institution of Penn State’s size.
The university also turned down a Centre Daily Times request for any police records from a 1998 investigation into an incident involving Sandusky showering with a boy on campus, saying the only document it is required to make public is a note on the university police report of June 2, 1998, stating: “At 1840 hours, PSO Schreffler requested an incident number for an ongoing investigation.”
Since he took office, Erickson has pledged to give regular updates on the university’s own investigation into the matter and has been meeting with faculty, students and staff. The university also is looking into creating an ethics officer and program, and creating a hotline to report abuse.
Erickson said the ethics program would provide a way to raise questions and have conversations about ethical and moral issues.
Lozano said he thinks the administration is reaching out to students now, and that includes opportunities over the past week to meet with administrators, including Erickson.
There is discussion about setting up a monthly town hall meeting, he said, that would give senior administrators a chance to hear directly from students.
“I think the university is starting to move in a good direction,” Lozano said.
It remains to be seen to what degree the university will embrace an effort to be more open.
Mutchler, of the state Open Records office, acknowledges that most every organization wants to protect its brand. But she said history has shown Penn State goes to great lengths to protect its image.
Even 20 years ago when she was a reporter for the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, she said, “We were fighting tooth and nail” to get basic information.
“There is a very real tight grip. I don’t think there is a culture of openness. I think it’s 180 degrees the other way.”
Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.