Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Penn State alumni survey finds Paterno firing a sore subject

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn Staters don’t approve of how the university handled Joe Paterno’s dismissal, and their overall feelings about their alma mater are less favorable than in past years, but they were happy with their time at the university.

Those are some of the findings of a survey the university commissioned. The alumni association survey is typically done every three years in the spring to assess graduates’ attitudes about Penn State and recent events. This year it comes as Penn State is trying to regain support from alumni, many of whom were critical of how the board of trustees fired Joe Paterno over the telephone.

 Among the findings are that 58 percent disapproved of all or most of the handling of the decision to terminate Paterno after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. Another 31 percent said some of the university’s moves were right, and some were wrong.

Only 11 percent approved of all or most of how the university responded.

When asked for examples of some of the wrong actions Penn State took regarding Paterno, 28 percent pointed to a lack of due process for Paterno, and 26 percent were critical of how he was fired over the phone rather than in person. The board of trustees said they fired him as coach because of a lack of a leadership in response to Sandusky allegations.

Daniel Byrd, president of the greater Pittsburgh chapter of the Alumni Association, said most graduates don’t have negative feelings against the school, they’re just frustrated with how the Paterno firing was handled.

“I haven’t talked with anybody who thinks that was the right way to handle it,” Byrd said. “Somebody could walk through the door and at least have a conversation.”

Some of the survey results were positive. Alumni almost universally are satisfied with the experience they had as students at Penn State.

Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Rodney Kirsch said while some alums “weren’t supportive of how things played out with coach Paterno,” they’re still supportive of and connected to the university.

“While there may be certain convictions or beliefs that people have about certain items at Penn State, the overwhelming sentiment is really still emotional connection and love for his university,” Kirsch said. “So, at the end of the day, we find that people are very much standing by the side of the university when all is said and done.”

He said the university is continuing to think about how it communicates with alumni.

“This is just going to take some time to work through some of this,” he said. “I’m realistic about that. But I’m also buoyed by the fact that I think this is very recoverable to get us back to where we’d like to be.”

Incoming trustee member Anthony Lubrano said he hopes the board takes notice of the results, but he is doubtful.

“Alumni aren’t saying Joe Paterno is innocent or guilty,” he said. “What the alumni are saying is that you mistreated a man who gave so much to our school and that he is entitled to due process.”

Some of the findings:

  • 87 percent said Paterno should be publicly recognized for his service to Penn State.
  • 47 percent said that recent events have made them feel somewhat or much more negatively toward the university; 9 percent said they feel much or somewhat more positively.
  • 30 percent said they are somewhat or much less likely to donate to the university; while 65 percent said it hasn’t affected their likelihood to give.
  • 57 percent trust the Alumni Association and 56 percent trust current students to provide them with information about the university, while only 23 percent trust the administration and 13 percent trust the board.
  • The percent who have “very positive” feelings toward Penn State is 47 percent, down from 73 percent in 2009. The number who have “somewhat positive” feelings increased from 18 percent to 35. 

Overall, 82 percent have somewhat or very positive feelings, compared with 91 percent in 2009.

Kirsch said that is a concern, “but I also really take some hope from the fact that ... a high percentage of people think that the university can recover from this and build trust and confidence back to the levels that we’ve had before. I take a lot of encouragement from that.”

Kirsch said there are now more alumni donors. Donation levels are down compared with last year, but it will still be the second or third best year, he said. Last year, the university raised $275 million, including $88 million from Terry and Kim Pegula for an ice arena. The year, giving is expected to be close to the $203 million raised the year before.

The alumni association paid StrategyOne $30,000 to do the survey. StrategyOne is an independent company owned by Daniel J. Edelman, the company the university recently contracted to handle public relations.

The survey was conducted by telephone and email with a total of 1,282 respondents. 

Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648. Follower her on Twitter @AnneDanahy