Commentary: Penn State trustees must challenge NCAA sanctions, keep moving forward

A famous Bob Dylan song proclaimed, “The times they are a-changing.” Although that line was written about American culture in the 1960s, it appears to also describe today’s Penn State board of trustees.

After many months of acrimony among the trustees about the Freeh report and related issues, a letter published on Tuesday from “old guard” trustee Paul Silvis and reformer Ryan McCombie urged the Penn State community to come together as one team.

During a subsequent town hall meeting, increased unity was on public display. Trustees of all stripes held a candid discussion with Penn Staters about the need for additional board reforms.

Further progress was made this week when board chair Keith Masser told USA Today that, in his opinion, Freeh’s conclusions about a cover-up among Penn State officials were merely “speculation” rather than fact. Although the board’s officially remains neutral regarding Freeh’s conclusions, Mr. Masser’s statement of his opinion is a dramatic step in the right direction.

Another Bob Dylan song notes, “There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief.” Since last July, many thousands of concerned alumni have sought a way out of the nightmare that the Freeh report created. Fairly or unfairly, alumni have referred to the trustees as jokers, thieves and worse.

But now change is afoot. We gratefully applaud the recent moves by the trustees. We thank them for taking bona fide steps toward restoring unity among Penn Staters. And, more importantly, we urge them to keep moving forward.

First, we ask the trustees to contest the NCAA sanctions. Given that its chair now recognizes that Freeh’s conclusions about a cover-up are speculation, logically the board must also acknowledge that the sanctions are illegitimate. Sanctions must be based on facts, not on unsupported theories. Allowing sanctions to stand when they are based on speculation would constitute a breach of trustees’ fiduciary responsibility.

Second, we ask that the trustees formally consider the validity of the Freeh report’s conclusions, including a review of the raw material collected by Freeh’s team. The report portrayed Penn State’s culture as morally deficient in prioritizing football over the well-being of children. This characterization, and the quality of its underlying evidentiary basis, needs to be openly discussed and debated.

It is essential that we learn the truth about how Sandusky was able to operate unstopped for so long. Only by understanding the real nature of the problem can it be addressed – at Penn State and at other institutions – so that this does not happen again. We owe it to the victims to be sure this lesson is learned. And, in good conscience, we cannot allow respected members of our community to be scapegoated without sufficient evidence that they did wrong.

By expressing his opinion that Freeh’s conclusions are speculation, Masser has created an opportunity to build the unity called for by trustees Silvis and McCombie. Concerned alumni are ready, willing, and able to support the board in taking the logical next steps of contesting the sanctions and searching for the truth.

Together, we can find a way out of here.