PHILADELPHIA (AP) — As a dyed-in-the-wool Penn State alumnus, Jeff Jubelirer watched helplessly as his beloved alma mater became engulfed in an explosive child sex-abuse scandal this month. As a crisis communications specialist, he cringed.
Jubelirer, based in Philadelphia, described the university's initial response to the allegations involving retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky as disastrous — "like an ostrich who hides its head."
Still, he and other experts say Penn State's shattered reputation can be repaired. And perhaps the biggest step in that direction was the university's announcement Monday that it has hired former FBI Director Louis Freeh to oversee an internal investigation.
"A no-holds-barred assessment of what happened and what went wrong" is critical if the school is to restore the faith of students, staff and alumni, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.
Hartle said the universities involved in the biggest crises of the past 15 years — the massacre at Virginia Tech; false rape allegations at Duke; and a bonfire accident that killed 12 at Texas A&M — have all rebounded, in part due to a "sincere willingness" to investigate and ensure catastrophe doesn't strike twice.
"The case of the other three institutions would suggest that Penn State will be able to recover from this terrible scandal," Hartle said. "Institutions have demonstrated the capacity to candidly address the problem and then to move beyond it."
The crisis in State College began Nov. 5, when authorities announced Sandusky had been charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years. According to a grand jury report, many of the sexual assaults took place on campus; at least one was reported to Penn State officials.
Sandusky maintains his innocence, as do two administrators — Tim Curley and Gary Schultz — charged with a cover-up.
But as media descended on Happy Valley, the days became a blur of closed-door meetings and hastily called — and sometimes canceled — news conferences. Iconic football coach Joe Paterno announced his retirement, only to be fired hours later. Student demonstrations turned violent. Longtime president Graham Spanier was ousted.
And the initial silence from Penn State trustees was deafening. It took days for the board to issue a simple statement acknowledging the allegations and the pain they had caused.
The delay was also inexplicable, considering administrators had testified before the grand jury and knew charges were possible, said Sean Darcy, who worked as a media liaison for three New Jersey governors.
"As a story, it's been mishandled from Day 1," said Darcy, now of Round World Consulting. Even worse, he later added, "all of the great work done at the university and by their alumni will be at risk of being viewed through tainted perspective because of the alleged actions of one man and the university's inability to handle it."
In the first few days after the accusations, the school's board of trustees hired a high-powered public relations firm and named two trustees to head an internal probe. But critics, including the university's faculty senate, called for outside investigators.
Penn State went a step further Monday in announcing Freeh would oversee the examination and gave him broad leeway to investigate anyone at the school, from department staffers to trustees themselves.
Considering the central players in the scandal were administrators who had spent decades at the university, and Penn State had already turned to insiders for its new president and athletic director, it had little choice but to turn the investigation over to somebody with no ties to the school.
"In crisis situations, one has to more than ever give the appearance that the person conducting the investigation is beyond reproach and is completely untainted by an affiliation with any element of the institution," said Sheldon Steinbach, a Washington D.C.-based attorney who has represented colleges and universities for 42 years
Steinbach said the decision the decision to stick with former Provost Rodney Erickson as Penn State's new president was "a judgment call only the board can make, but going outside to somebody of Freeh's knowledge, capacity and national respect will add credibility to everything that emerges from the investigation."
During a crisis, officials need to consider their school's long-term reputation, as well as the reaction of donors and prospective students, said Rae Goldsmith, a vice president at the Washington-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
"What all of these people are looking for is how the institution responds and what actions it takes," Goldsmith said. "While a crisis is deeply challenging ... it's also an opportunity for the institution to demonstrate its values as it responds."
Jubelirer said Penn State came up painfully short on that front. And he worries about the lasting impact on students, staff, alumni, donors, potential recruits and even state lawmakers, who allot the school an annual subsidy.
"Everything is affected by this scandal, not just the football program," Jubelirer said. "It's a nightmare."
A 1993 graduate and donor whose family had season football tickets for years, Jubelirer noted he was disappointed that it took several days to for his local alumni chapter to send emails acknowledging the crisis.
But he lauded the university for its actions in bringing in Freeh, and giving him the power to do his investigation.
It "was absolutely a constructive and positive step," Jubelirer said.
Officials have also sought to reassure donors. Peter Tombros, head of the university's $2 billion "For the Future" campaign, released a statement Nov. 9 saying that the goal of "keeping a world-class education within reach for students from every economic background remains as important today as it was before" the scandal broke.
Tombros added: "I also want to assure you that no private funds or philanthropic resources will be directed toward legal expenses for the university employees who have been charged in the case."
Jubelirer said Penn State needs to focus on its image among prospective students, as well. High school guidance counselors will be wondering how to answer questions from skittish students and parents, he said.
"They can make or break a kid applying," said Jubelirer, later adding, "I have no doubt that numbers are going to go down next year."
Patrick Lanciotti, a 21-year-old Penn State senior from Dix Hills, N.Y., said he saw plenty of prospective students touring the campus in the week after the allegations were made public.
But he said the school "might be a harder sell" now because of the scandal, even though it is also home to charitable endeavors like THON, an annual weekend dance marathon billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. It raised $9.5 million last year for pediatric cancer patients.
"It is a shame," Lanciotti said. "This school is such a great institution and it does so much for the community and for the nation."
Kathy Matheson can be reached at www.twitter.com/kmatheson.
AP Education Writer Justin Pope in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.