STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State has been strengthened by improvements to compliance and governance in the year since former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested, the university’s president said Monday.
The past year has been difficult, but the university remains a diverse institution focused on academics, research and service, President Rodney Erickson said.
“Are we a better university? Yes, I think we are in terms of everything that we’ve accomplished and put into place,” he said.
Erickson spoke to The Associated Press as part of a series of interviews with media outlets Monday, a year to the day that Sandusky’s arrest ignited one of the worst scandals in higher education.
The NCAA, in levying strict sanctions over the Sandusky scandal, slammed Penn State for a “football-first culture” that was caused by a failure of institutional integrity. Those statements continue to draw the ire of some alumni and fans who were irritated that university leadership didn’t challenge the assertions.
“That’s what a lot of people, myself included, and certainly the Faculty Senate and many members of the Penn State community have reacted to, is the painting of Penn State with a very, very broad brush in a sense that there’s one culture here that dominates everything.”
Neither the marquee football program, nor any other aspect of Penn State life, dominates overall university culture, Erickson said.
He cited recent NCAA data showing high graduation rates for football players and other Penn State teams. The rates, Erickson said, are an example of Penn State’s dedication to academic and athletic success and “evidence of a culture of athletics that is one that we can and should take great pride in, and we will continue to believe in that principle — that academics and athletics can work together in a very, very positive way.”
The soft-spoken Erickson, the former chief academic officer, took over as president after Graham Spanier departed under pressure four days after Sandusky’s arrest. Longtime coach Joe Paterno was fired the same night, sparking a large student protest downtown.
In July, the NCAA cited a school-sanctioned investigation led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh in saying there was an “unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency.” The school was hit with a four-year bowl ban, steep scholarship cuts and a $60 million fine.
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced last month to at least 30 years in prison after being convicted in June on dozens of criminal counts covering allegations on and off campus. He has maintained his innocence and is pursuing appeals.
The criminal investigation continues. Spanier is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday after the state attorney general’s office said the former president conspired with two other officials to conceal allegations against Sandusky.
Many other challenges lie ahead.
Erickson said he was optimistic about the ongoing inquiries by the Department of Education and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an accrediting body. He had no update Monday on the progress of the school’s potential civil settlements with Sandusky accusers.
He also expressed optimism that many of the challenges would be behind the school once the board of trustees finds his replacement.
Erickson plans to step down when his current contract expires in June 2014. Trustees are expected to release more details on the search process at their next meeting later this month.
Among governance improvements, Erickson cited the hiring of a full-time compliance officer for the Clery Act, a federal law that requires reporting of certain crimes on campus; a search for an athletics integrity officer; and changes to guidelines covering minors on campus, including more background checks and staff training.
Erickson said communication and oversight also has improved among Penn State leadership.
Nevertheless, Erickson said the upcoming year could be “our most challenging year in applications.” He cited issues affecting high school students and their families in general, such as concerns about tuition, mounting student debt and getting a job after college.
“The message to prospective students is that Penn State was a great institution a year ago, and it’s still a great academic institution,” he said. “If you come to Penn State, you’re going to continue to get a great education.”
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