Penn State takes first steps to recover after Sandusky scandal

Penn State trustees, taking ‘full responsibility’ for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, announced initial steps to recover the university's tarnished reputation. Some say much more will have to be done, especially changing a campus culture in which sports coaches are idolized.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
A statue of former Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno stands outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.

It’s likely to take years for Penn State to fully recover from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that has blotted the reputation of the university and its most senior officials, including legendary head football coach Joe Paterno.

But in its first meeting since the blistering investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh, the university’s board of trustees has taken initial steps in that direction.

The board – which itself was criticized in the Freeh report for failing to create an environment in which much of the abuse might have been prevented – has begun by accepting what board chair Karen Peetz calls “full responsibility” for its failures.

Notably, the federal Clery Act of 1990 requiring the compilation and reporting of crime statistics, including sexual offenses, had never become policy at Penn State. Under the Clery Act – named for a young woman sexually assaulted and murdered in a Lehigh University dorm room in 1986 – Penn State officials were obliged to report Mr. Sandusky’s known activities to law enforcement officials.

"Our hearts are heavy and we are deeply ashamed," said trustee Ken Frazier. "We failed to ask the tough questions. We failed to push the issue."

IN PICTURES: Fallout from the Penn State scandal

Penn State President Rodney Erickson, who replaced Graham Spanier when the latter was fired, pronounced himself “horrified” when he learned of the allegations against Sandusky last November.

In his report to the trustees Friday, Mr. Erickson said:

“To date, Penn State has taken a number of actions including: strengthening policies and programs involving minors, including child abuse and mandated reporter training; ensuring a process for prompt reporting of abuse and sexual misconduct; hiring a new Clery Compliance Coordinator and providing Clery Act training for employees; beginning a national search for the newly created position of director of University Compliance; and restructuring within the Board of Trustees to ensure diligent governance of the University.”

So far, none of the university’s 32 trustees has resigned, although the board did vote to shorten terms of office from 15 years to 12 years.

How to deal with the legacy of head football coach Paterno – whose bronze statue is perhaps Penn State’s most famous (now infamous) icon – is something the school’s trustees say they just can’t deal with now.

"It's going to take a lot of dialogue with the community," trustees chair Ms. Peetz said Friday. "We want to be reflective, we want to go slowly, and it will be something that will take a lot of deliberation."

But prominent sports columnist and book author John Feinstein says, “Paterno’s legacy is no longer stained or tarnished – it is destroyed.”

“Regardless of how many good things he did during his 62 years as a Penn State employee, the tragedy that he failed to stop overwhelms all the good he did,” Mr. Feinstein writes in The Washington Post.

Some have suggested that Mr. Paterno’s statue be removed and that the library building bearing his name be renamed.

"You go to a Penn State football game and there's 100,000 people down there and they got that statute and you know doggone well they'll start talking about Sandusky," former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden told The Associated Press. "If it was me, I wouldn't want to have it brought up every time I walked out on the field."

If anything happens in that regard, it won’t be soon, however. Still, lesser steps are being taken.

The Big Ten has removed Paterno's name from the football championship trophy it had named after him. Nike has decided to change the name of the Joe Paterno Child Development Center, a child-care facility at the company's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

But beyond Paterno’s involvement in Penn State’s disgrace, Feinstein says, “This tragedy should do something else, too: remind everyone involved in college athletics that no coach, regardless of how many games he wins, how many players he graduates, or how much money he raises for the university should be allowed to have the absolute power that Paterno wielded. Absolute power doesn’t always corrupt absolutely, but it absolutely can corrupt.”

“College presidents love to talk about the importance of academics and refer to football and basketball players as ‘student-athletes.’ They set themselves up as bastions of righteousness even as they let coaches run amok in the name of winning games and making money,” writes Feinstein. “This is an opportunity for presidents to do something other than preen. They should take steps to ensure that no coach can ever again have the absolute power Paterno wielded. They should stop giving coaches multimillion-dollar contracts. They should stop building statues and naming stadiums, arenas, and basketball courts for them – especially while the coaches are still active. They should also stop asking them to raise funds. Tell them to coach their teams and try to see to it that their players graduate. Period.”

Penn State officials say they are committed to taking a public role on an issue that has devastated students, faculty, administration, and generations of alums.

The university has scheduled a national conference on child sexual abuse prevention in October.

IN PICTURES: Fallout from the Penn State scandal

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