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Penn State president tries again to calm alumni

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Penn State University President Rodney Erickson speaks during a town hall meeting with alumni Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, in King of Prussia, Pa. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Penn State University President Rodney Erickson speaks during a town hall meeting with alumni Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, in King of Prussia, Pa. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Meetings this week between Penn State President Rodney Erickson and alumni were intended to calm anger about how the university has dealt with a child sex abuse scandal involving longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Instead, the sessions have triggered more anguish and another round of introspection for the people who love the school and its football program.

The harshest criticism at stops this week in suburban Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been reserved for the school's Board of Trustees and its actions in the immediate aftermath of the criminal charges against Sandusky, a retired defensive coordinator. Among the critics' top grievances: the firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno.

It's a topic that likely will re-emerge Friday night when Erickson appears at his final alumni town hall meeting in New York.

"We didn't think these meetings would be a picnic and we knew that people wanted to be heard — including the unvarnished, emotional and angry comments," school spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Friday. "The concerns expressed by the alumni so far are not surprising to Dr. Erickson — he also has felt some of the very same emotions over this tragedy. He gets it."

Erickson, who plans to retire in 2014, was unable to speak by phone with The Associated Press because of a schedule packed with meetings — including sessions with donors — on Friday, Powers said.

"He is providing answers where he can and hopes that these conversations show alumni his dedication to openness and communication," she said.

But it's the perceived lack of communication by trustees in the two months since Paterno's firing on Nov. 9 that has itself roiled many graduates.

Most of the alumni who turned out to hear Erickson in King of Prussia, Pa., came for just one reason: to seek redress for the closed-door firing of Paterno, who was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after being fired and was re-hospitalized on Friday.

Joe Paterno was Penn State's brand. Joe Paterno was the university, alumni said.

Erickson tried to say otherwise, asking the proud but pained alums to tell friends that Penn State is so much more than the football program. There are dozens of other sports, hundreds of other clubs, $78 million raised for charity through the dance marathon alone, he said. Penn State remains a world-class university, the president insisted.

But his attempts at cheerleading were largely drowned out by demands for details on how and why Paterno was fired. Why are the minutes to the pivotal November board meetings not available if the board is pledging transparency, they asked.

Erickson withstood the heat of perhaps a dozen heated questions over 90 minutes. He frequently said the questions could only be answered by the Board of Trustees, though he also said he supported the decision to fire Paterno.

"I think the board felt that they had to take very decisive action under very difficult kinds of circumstances," Erickson said.

The 67-year-old Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He maintains his innocence and remains out on $250,000 bail while awaiting trial. A charity he founded called The Second Mile, through which he met many of his alleged victims, said Friday it was selling a 60-acre property where it had been building an educational center.

Two Penn State administrators are facing charges they lied to a grand jury investigating Sandusky and failed to properly report suspected child abuse. Gary Schultz, a former vice president, and Tim Curley, the athletic director, have denied the allegations and await trial.

Paterno in early 2002 passed along a report of alleged sex abuse by Sandusky to his bosses but did not notify police. However, Paterno is not a target of the criminal investigation.

In terms of public relations, Penn State has continuously been playing catch-up, said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal for the New York-based crisis management firm, Group Gordon.

The school, he said, has two constituencies: the public at large, which is critical to maintaining Penn State's national brand, and the community of students, alumni and other supporters, who are important from a community-building and fundraising perspective.

"In order to get past the problem, you have to figure out who you're talking to, who your constituencies are, and so I don't think the board has figured it out," Robinson-Leon said.

The top two leaders of the trustees released a statement Thursday evening responding to alumni questions. Paterno, they said, was removed in November instead of being allowed to retire after the season because of "extraordinary circumstances."

"The details of his retirement are being worked out and will be made public when they are finalized," said the statement from Chairman Steve Garban and Vice Chairman John Surma. "Generally speaking, the University intends to honor the terms of his employment contract and is treating him financially as if he had retired at the end of the 2011 football season."

Robinson-Leon said it appears to be important from the Penn State community's perspective that the trustees take full responsibility for their decisions.

"They were trying to move toward owning that decision, but you can't do it halfway," he said. "At some point, the leadership of the board has to get out there and face the critics."

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Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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