Seeing Through Erickson's Transparency

Accepting NCAA sanctions without a thorough university review flies in the faces of his vows of change.

Less than a week after being promoted to university president in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State last November, former school provost Rodney Erickson issued five promises to the PSU community.

No. 3 was a vow that, “Penn State is committed to transparency to the fullest extent possible given the ongoing investigations.”

He added that he intended to give “meaningful and timely updates as frequently as needed,” and that he encouraged “dialogue with students, faculty, alumni and other members of the Penn State community.”

It also sounded so positive. That it took a former Nittany Lion football assistant coach being accused of abusing boys (and university officials of covering it up) to crack what some have called a “culture of silence” among school and athletic department leaders was a sad commentary on the previous state of affairs.

But it was a promise of transparency, just the same, a chance for the entire university community to be a part of what figured to be a long, long healing process.

Eight months later, Penn State and its storied football program have been slammed with some of the harshest sanctions ever handed down by the NCAA. They are all well-known by now. No postseason play for four years and a loss of 40 scholarships overall are the most crippling from a competitive standpoint. At the very least, it will take years for the program to recover.

If you look closely enough amid the rubble of vacated wins and tarnished legacies, you will see what is left of Erickson's credibility.

This is not a rant against the sanctions delivered against Penn State. The fact of the matter is, the sanctions are in place now, and the school has to deal with them. Whatever your overall take on the situation, some sort of punishment was in order for the program, whether self-imposed or from the NCAA. The magnitude of the Sandusky scandal was that great.

And that's the (latest) problem with Erickson, whose vow of transparency has looked more and more like lip service to placate the masses at every step along this terrible journey.

Look back at each key decision made at the university since last November, and it is difficult to find one that came about after serious discussion with “students, faculty, alumni and other members of the Penn State community.”

The decisions to fire former football coach Joe Paterno and former school president Graham Spanier were made during a closed meeting of the Board of Trustees. Erickson was promoted to president and longtime trustee Dave Joyner was appointed athletic director — both with no public discussion.

The board appointed an internal “special committee” to deal with the Sandusky scandal, and it hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to head an independent investigation into the matter. Again, the board made these decisions behind closed doors.

In early December, there was a special “public” meeting of the board's executive committee to bring previous private acts in line with Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. The meeting was held in a conference room at the Nittany Lion Inn on campus. Reporters, members of the public and even Paterno's daughter, Mary Kay Hort, showed up. But there were no trustees there. Erickson was nowhere to be found.

There was a speakerphone, and the “public” was allowed to listen to the call (and watch the speakerphone).

On the call, the board “reaffirmed” and “ratified” the firings of Paterno and Spanier, and the promotion of Erickson. Though they both live in Centre County, neither Erickson nor board chair Garban attended the meeting in person and thus did not answer any questions.

Speaking of Garban, he surprisingly stepped down as board chair in January (but remained on the board), and in doing so was gushed over (in almost uncomfortable ways) by other trustees and even Erickson for the great work he had done. “I want to extend thanks to Steve Garban for his role as chair for the past couple of years,” Erickson said at an actual open meeting of the board. “He's been a steady hand and has served the board with distinction.”

Except when he withheld information on Sandusky.

When the Freeh Report was released earlier this month, it revealed evidence that Garban knew of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into Sandusky and, later, pending charges against Sandusky, Curley and Schultz, but kept the rest of the board in the dark on the topics.

Even when this became public knowledge, the board — many members of which had long since known it — took no formal action to remove Garban. He resigned on his own in July.

Back in January, Garban was replaced as chair by board member Karen Peetz. While announced at the public meeting, the transfer of power was merely a formality of a decision that had obviously been made earlier.

Later, after Garban resigned under pressure in July, Peetz praised the resignation as a sign of “leadership,” and made sure to “sincerely” thank him.

Speaking of Peetz, when the Freeh Report was released, she was specifically asked what would happen to the Joe Paterno statue near Beaver Stadium. She replied that it was “a very sensitive topic. This is something that will need to be discussed with the entire university community. This is not just a board decision.”

So after being held out of the dialogue on so many key topics, the “university community” would have a say on something — even if it was as relatively insignificant as the fate of a 7-foot, 900-pound hunk of bronze.

A week later, the board had a private conference call on the statue. The next day, Erickson said he would make the final decision on the issue within 72 hours. A day and a half later — this was early Sunday morning — the statue came down.

So much for community decisions.

A day after that, Monday, something more important came down — the sanctions. They were unprecedented in many ways, the most significant of which was the lack of a formal NCAA investigation into the matter. Penn State showed the NCAA the results of the Freeh Report. The NCAA issued the sanctions just over a week later, taking the report as gospel.

The most galling part for Penn State fans is that the sanctions came in the form of a binding consent decree signed by only two people — NCAA president Mark Emmert and Erickson. We've since learned that the entire board never even had an opportunity to see the proposed sanctions, let alone vote on them.

The rapid, almost precision way everything unfolded in one month smacked of a backroom deal that had been brokered well in advance. Think about it.

Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse June 22. That started the clock ticking. About three weeks later, the Freeh report — based on an investigation that lasted about eight months — was revealed. Ten days later, the Paterno statue came down. One day later, the NCAA sanctions were delivered.

Imagine that. The statue that had become a rallying place for Penn State fans — when Paterno was fired in November, when he died in January and when it looked liked the statue might be torn down over the weekend — was removed in well-rehearsed fashion one day before the NCAA sanctions vacated 111 Paterno wins and ended his reign as the winningest coach in major-college football.

To recap, it was 31 days from the Sandusky conviction until the sanctions hit, and only 10 days from the delivery of the Freeh Report until the sanctions. Who knew the NCAA had an express lane? What was this, Sanctions-R-Us?

A better question: Where was the transparency in any of it? In fact, the utter lack of the stuff by Erickson and company became that much more obvious following the stunning — and sometimes heartbreakingly graphic — transparency we saw during the emotional Sandusky trial.

The most important thing that happened over the summer was that a jury comprised of ordinary Centre County folks — most of them with ties to Penn State — got the Sandusky verdict right. He'll rot in prison for the rest of his miserable life. And it is imperative to remember that he is the real villain here; the boys he attacked the real victims.

Prosecutors and even the board-commissioned Freeh Report concluded that a significant part of the problem at Penn State with respect to the Sandusky scandal was that certain university officials had too much power and too little oversight. There was a lack of checks and balances.

Erickson promised to change that via greater transparency. He has failed at every turn in that regard, and never more so than in his handling of the NCAA sanctions. With perhaps the greatest decision ever facing a great university — whether to accept the harsh penalties or take a chance on a full-blown NCAA investigation and possibly even worse sanctions — he wasn't even transparent with the school's entire Board of Trustees.

Monday afternoon, Erickson told the Centre Daily Times, “We had our backs to the wall on this” because the NCAA had threatened the death penalty (at least a one-year suspension of play for Penn State football) and further penalties. “We did what we thought was necessary to save the program.”

Just so you know, “we” meant “board leadership and others.” He was sitting with Peetz and Joyner for the interview. But he was not talking about the entire board, because some of them were blindsided by what went down. By extension, he obviously was not talking about “the Penn State community.”

Again, this is not a rant against accepting the sanctions. They may well have been the best options for Penn State.

It is all about the way the sanctions were accepted, with zero transparency.

There was no thorough discussion (even among the entire board) that most certainly would have included dissenting opinions that (right or wrong) would have forced the NCAA to prove the death penalty was really in play. And I'm betting there is no record of whatever discussion may have taken place between Erickson and “board leaders and others.”

“It was my decision, facing that decision or a long-term death penalty and the possibility of additional sanctions,” Erickson told the CDT.

Rodney Erickson?

Like it or not, he is … Penn State.

Karen Peetz and Dave Joyner?

Like or not, they are … Penn State.

Ironically, the out-of-house regime change that should have happened last November appears to be the only chance of restoring the “We Are” tradition of the university.

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