UNIVERSITY PARK — Top Penn State administrators fielded students’ questions on the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal Wednesday night, saying the outlook for the university is strong even as it struggles with how to handle the charges and their aftermath.
Applications to Penn State aren’t dropping, fundraising remains healthy and potential employers haven’t shown signs of losing interest in recruiting at the university, according to the answers President Rod Erickson and seven other university officials gave during the two-hour town hall forum.
“There’s a tremendous mix of emotion, a tremendous sense of what a big job we have ahead of us right now, but also a tremendous buoying of spirit that there are so many individuals ... who are saying, ‘We know this isn’t Penn State. We know that you’re going to emerge from this better than ever.
We’re with you. Keep up the good work,’ ” Erickson said.
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He said applications haven’t fallen, and are actually ahead of this time last year by 4 percent.
The forum, sponsored by three student government organizations and held in the HUB-Robeson Center, drew more than 400 students who used the better part of two hours to pepper the top administrators with questions about how the university handled the Sandusky scandal, whether the board of trustees has been acting in students’ best interest and how trust in Penn State can be regained.
One student asked how she should deal with feelings of shame.
Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses Madlyn Hanes said the allegations and events surrounding them don’t define the students.
“I would submit to you that we should emerge from this more compassionate and with resolve,” Hanes said. “I think going forward the communities that you will join will benefit from that compassion that you will learn.”
In response to one question, Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims referred to his time at Indiana University, where longtime basketball coach Bob Knight was fired.
“Bob Knight and Indiana University seemed to be synonymous with one another,” he said, adding that it wasn’t long after that that the university came to be known for other things, including academic excellence.
“This is truly a great university. It had a great football program. I suspect it will continue to have a very successful and great football program,” he said. “But I also think this is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to find new ways to demonstrate to the world how excellent we are in every other respect.”
Sims also addressed a question about whether employers will be hesitant to hire Penn State graduates because of the scandal. He said that university Career Services reached out to employers and has been told that isn’t the case.
The forum was the first of its kind held since Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, was arraigned on charges of sexual abuse of eight boys.
Two top university administrators — one is now on leave, the other retired — were charged with perjury for their testimony on the case to a grand jury. University trustees subsequently fired football coach Joe Paterno and terminated Graham Spanier as president.
Questions remain about how the university handled the situation and several investigations, both internal and external, are under way.
The board of trustees appointed Erickson, who had been executive vice president, to the job of president after terminating Spanier. Erickson said Spanier is on sabbatical and could return to the university faculty in a year.
Despite the criminal case against Sandusky and questions about how the university handled it, fundraising is strong, according to the Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Rod Kirsch. He said while the university will lose support from some donors “we’re not falling off the fundraising cliff by any measure at all.”
“I want to reassure you that, yeah, we’re going to have a bump in the road here. The biggest challenge we have with fundraising is that we’re going to lose a little bit of time as we try to work our way through and move forward,” Kirsch said. “But rest assured there are a lot of Penn Staters who believe in this place and they believe in you and they’re going to support you.”
Rumbi Kapfumvuti, a sophomore studying pre-medicine, said after the meeting that holding it was a good idea, and that administrators broke a barrier by communicating with students.
“For the administration to step up, and come out there and answer students and actually talk to students and hear their concerns — I think that deserved a good round of applause,” she said.
Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.