Shaken by Sandusky Scandal, a Changed Penn State Is Moving Onby PETE THAMEL, nytimes.com
June 22nd 2012
With Penn State’s campus tucked away in a remote section of central Pennsylvania, one of its charms has always been its isolation and simplicity. The destination restaurant is The Tavern. The most popular hotel is still called an inn. And the primary administration building is simply known as Old Main.
But since a grand jury charged Jerry Sandusky, the football team’s former defensive coordinator, in early November with being a serial pedophile, the university where change previously seemed unthinkable has dealt with the most tumultuous of times.
In the seven months since the Sandusky charges emerged, Penn State has a new president, athletic director and football coach, replacing three men who served in those roles for nearly 80 years combined. Its former coach, Joe Paterno, had over the decades become the symbol of Penn State’s old-school ways. He won games at a record pace, his players graduated and his style remained the same as the university blossomed during his near half-century as the coach.
What has emerged in the post-Paterno Penn State is a new normal, as the university will continue to be scrutinized even after Sandusky was found guilty Friday night.
With Paterno dead and the former athletic director Tim Curley still facing charges linked to the Sandusky matter, the university and its football program are carrying on with legal issues looming in the background.
“I’ve seen a lot in my 30 years, and it’s been as tough of a year for an institution that I can recall,” the Big Ten’s commissioner, Jim Delany, said.
“There are guilty parties and people terribly hurt and a lot of innocent parties that have also been terribly hurt.”
The university has tried to move on. Despite the relentless stream of bad publicity, applications to Penn State rose more than 1 percent to a record 116,595 this year. The number of donors to the university will also increase: Penn State projects that by the end of the month, it will have had a total of 190,000 donors within the last year, up more than 6,000 from the same period the previous year. (The financial totals from this year’s donations are not yet known.) The number of applicants to the Penn State law school did fall nearly 30 percent, to 3,458 from 4,848, outpacing the national downturn in law school applications.
Larry Foster, a former Penn State trustee and a former president of the alumni association, has a counterintuitive view to the administrative changes. He stressed that the lack of a decline in applications and donors showed that the spirit of the overall university community remained strong.
“I think that’s it’s been rather surprising and gratifying that the boat hasn’t been rocked that much in terms of continuing to be a strong academic university,” he said.
While the region’s residents have been eager for the Sandusky trial to end to help begin the healing around State College, numerous other investigations are still being done — including one commissioned by Penn State’s board of trustees and being conducted by Louis J. Freeh, the former director of the F.B.I.
Multiple board members this week politely referred all inquiries about Penn State’s future to an outside public relations firm. One board member, Keith Masser, apologized for comments he made to The Associated Press in which he intimated that some Penn State officials had knowledge of some of Sandusky’s suspected conduct. Masser’s initial comments, however, underscored the general feeling in State College that things could get worse. The Freeh investigators have interviewed more than 400 people, and there is an anxious feeling around the university about what the report could say.
“Everyone who is close to the university is awaiting with interest the Freeh report,” Foster said.
The athletic department has had the most change. Penn State hired Bill O’Brien, an assistant with the New England Patriots, to succeed Paterno. Dave Joyner has been the acting athletic director since November.
O’Brien said in a recent interview that the Sandusky scandal had rarely come up with recruits. Still, the scandal drastically affected Penn State’s incoming recruiting class, as numerous key players withdrew their commitments.
“Their talent base is not top-10, maybe not top-20 material,” said the former Indiana football coach Gerry DiNardo, an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “They have a tremendous amount of work to do to their roster.”
The good news for O’Brien is that he has been well received by former Penn State players, high school coaches and recruits. Penn State ranks No. 13 in the current Scout.com recruiting rankings, behind only Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten.
And as Penn State adjusts to its new normal, other universities have taken note.
“The issue of realizing that the university is bigger than the individual has been driven home largely by this,” Ohio State’s president, E. Gordon Gee, said. “I think that’s the major change that’s taken place at Penn State. In many ways, it’s in a much healthier space in that the university is in charge of itself rather than being driven by a variety of vectors that are outside the general core of the university.”
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