UNIVERSITY PARK — Some members of Penn State Faculty Senate, questioning the independence of a board of trustees committee that’s investigating the university’s handling of sexual abuse allegations, called for sending a “no confidence” vote to trustees Tuesday.
Taking that question up for discussion required two-thirds of senators to agree to suspend the rules, and the effort failed when only about half of senators voted to do so. It was one part of a lengthy discussion among faculty members to decide the best course of action and response to the situation.
The Faculty Senate passed a resolution Nov. 18 calling for an independent review by a committee made up of a majority of members with no affiliation with Penn State.
Trustees appointed Louis Freeh, former FBI director, to lead an investigation and report to a nine-member committee that includes six trustees, alumni, Faculty Senate Chairman Dan Hagen, and a graduate student.
James Ruiz, with Penn State Harrisburg, was one of the faculty members who criticized trustees and how the case has been handled so far.
“I have a difficult time accepting the group, the board of trustees, who to me were supposed to be at the helm of this organization, whether they were aware or weren’t aware, our ship ran on the rocks. We’re foundering on a reef. Now the same board of trustees is appointing the people who are going to investigate this accident. I have a tough time with that.”
The meeting, which stretched more than two hours, focused almost entirely on the child sexual abuse scandal surrounding former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, questions about how the university handled the situation and what it should be doing now to investigate it and regain public trust.
The meeting included comments by President Rod Erickson and a chance for faculty to ask him questions.
Scott Gest, with the College of Health and Human Development, said he’s willing to accept the appointment of Freeh as sufficiently external to the university, but he’s concerned about the remainder of the committee and the difference between their charge and Freeh’s charge.
“The whole reason we’re in this position is because of the perception that Penn State covers up from within,” Gest said. “In that circumstance, I think it’s imperative that the committee be clearly controlled by people structurally external to Penn State. It’s really not a question of integrity or competence of those people, it’s a question of how any such report that’s controlled by a majority Penn State committee will be perceived.”
He said he thinks that because of the situation that got the university where it is, “it will be perceived as a whitewash committee regardless of how hard hitting it is.”
Tony Ambrose, with the College of Medicine, said he wanted to make a motion sending the board of trustees a vote of no confidence, asking for their resignations and creating a trustees board “that is lean, clean, and probably under these circumstance, pretty mean, with no more than nine or ten members.”
The motion to end the session that was under way and take up that question failed. Procedural rules blocked another effort to suspend the rules later in the meeting to take up forming a subcommittee to organize the discussion and make recommendations.
Hagen said Senate Council — a smaller committee — could discuss the main points made and see if it’s possible to “come to some sort of meeting of the minds before the next senate meeting on Jan. 24.”
Jonathan Marks, senator from the College of the Liberal Arts, said when the Faculty Senate proposed an independent committee, it did so out of concern about public trust.
He said the Faculty Senate could ask about who is on Freeh’s team and what the terms of engagement are. It could ask for an another chair or additional membership on the committee.
“We can make, as academics, a real contribution to the shaping of this committee as well as insisting on its restructuring in a way that would ensure independence, impartiality and the restoration of public trust,” Marks said to applause.
Other senators made suggestions for steps the Faculty Senate could take on its own. Faculty Senate member Al Luloff asked Erickson whether the university would provide money to the senate for its own investigation.
Erickson said the senate has to decide what it wants to do first, and he hasn’t heard a clear answer.
He said after the meeting that the committee needs to be given a chance to work and do its job.
“It may help if there is some opportunity for representatives from that committee to meet with faculty to talk about the kinds of work that they’re doing and the scope of their organization,” Erickson said.
He said he would relay that message to the trustees’ committee.
“I’ve encouraged the senate to see how the existing investigations are going and whether they answer the questions that they have and at the same time look into their own policies and practices and key touch points they have on various kinds of issues,” he said. “We’ll see what emerges from their subsequent discussions.”
Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.