For the first time since firing the legendary Joe Paterno Nov. 9, Penn State’s Board of Trustees will meet Friday to continue the business of running a university still shaken by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Ahead of that meeting, and in the wake of extensive criticism of how the 32-member board has handled the unprecedented scandal, a baker’s dozen trustees sat down with the New York Times to discuss the “painful decision” to dismiss Paterno as well as the tumultuous days after Sandusky’s indictment in early November.
As it relates to Paterno, the consensus among the trustees who spoke to the Times for up to three hours earlier this week is that there were three reasons for their decision to dismiss a man who was Nittany Lions football:
- “…his failure to do more when told about the suspected sexual assault in 2002”
Then-grad assistant Mike McQueary allegedly witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a 10-year-old boy in the Lasch Football Building and, after phoning his father, took, out of respect for Paterno, a “water-down version” of what he had witnessed to the head coach. In turn, Paterno turned the information over to then-athletic director Tim Curleyand another high-ranking university official. That was the end of Paterno’s action in the incident.”I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” Paterno told the Washington Post in his first sit-down interview late last week. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
- “…what they regarded as his questioning of the board’s authority in the days after Sandusky’s arrest”
Some trustees, per the Times article, viewed as insensitive Paterno leading “We are Penn State” cheers with a throng of students who had gathered at his house in a show of support in the wake of the Sandusky indictment.
- “…and what they determined to be his inability to effectively continue coaching in the face of continuing questions surrounding the program.”
Following a town hall meeting last week in which acting PSU president Rodney Erickson was the target of intense criticism for how Paterno was fired, the board’s chairman released a statement addressing “the Board’s unanimous judgment… that Coach Paterno could not be expected to continue to effectively perform his duties and that it was in the best interests of the University to make an immediate change in his status.”
The overriding factor in the board’s decision to fire Paterno, though, appears to come down to the coach doing the bare minimum as required by law upon hearing in 2002 his former assistant had been alone in a football building shower with a 10-year-old boy, and that something of a sexual nature had occurred at the hands of an alleged pedophile.
“To me, it wasn’t about guilt or innocence in a legal sense,” trustee Kenneth C. Frazier explained to the Times regarding Paterno’s decision not to go to police. “It was about these norms of society that I’m talking about: that every adult has a responsibility for every other child in our community. And that we have a responsibility not to do the minimum, the legal requirement. We have a responsibility for ensuring that we can take every effort that’s within our power not only to prevent further harm to that child, but to every other child.”
And therein lies the central issue when it comes to Paterno specifically: moral responsibility versus what’s required legally. In the eyes of the law, Paterno appears to be free and clear of any repercussions criminally.
Morally? “I wish I had done more,” Paterno said in a statement announcing his retirement at season’s end shortly before his firing. In a statement released by Paterno’s attorney to the Times Wednesday, Wick Sollers again reiterated that Paterno followed school policy in handling the situation.
“After learning of the alleged incident in 2002, Joe Paterno reported it immediately and fully to his superiors at the university. He believed these officials, who had the authority and responsibility to conduct investigations, would act appropriately. He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time. Blaming Joe Paterno for the failure of administration officials and the board to properly investigate Jerry Sandusky is unjustified.”
Of course, Paterno wasn’t the only high-ranking university official to see his job status changed by the events of the past two-plus months. Curley was placed on self-imposed administrative leave while vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz “retired”, with both facing perjury and failure to report abuse charges stemming from the Sandusky scandal. Graham Spanier was fired from his long-time post as president, and it’s he who appears to be the target of the most trustee angst and ire.
Spanier and other Penn State officials, including Paterno and Curley, testified in front of a grand jury in late 2010/early 2011. The school’s board was only apprised of the situation once by Spanier, a brief 5-10 minute discussion in May. “[The board was] disappointed that Spanier, who was legally allowed to speak about his grand jury testimony, did not brief the board on the nature of the questions by the grand jury about the 2002 episode,” the Times wrote.
“He should have told us a lot more,” trustee Ira Lubert said of Spanier. “He should have let us know much more of the background. He was able to legally share his testimony and I think that he had an obligation to do that with the board so we could get more engaged with the problem.”
The trustees who spoke with the Times also addressed an inexplicable statement of unconditional support for Curley and Schultz released by Spanier shortly after the two were charged, accusing Spanier of altering the language of the statement the board claimed was meant to convey the university’s intention to conduct a complete and independent investigation into the allegations. Instead, as an inferno of a scandal was growing with each passing hour, what was put out there for public consumption was a statement of “complete confidence” in two employees under felony indictment.
The decision to fire Spanier was made before the decision to fire Paterno, the trustees confirmed to the paper. The trustees also acknowledged that Spanier offered his resignation, which was not accepted by the board so that the body could deal with the issue of his continued employment itself.