STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — As Penn State tries to focus on the future, there are near-constant reminders about the past.
Retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is scheduled to stand trial next month on child sexual abuse charges that he has denied. Former FBI director Louis Freeh is leading the university’s internal probe into the scandal, one of several other inquiries into the case.
The school is trying to repair its image and go about with the business of academia while it deals with the aftermath of a crisis never before seen in higher education.
“It’s critical to see that there are a lot of positive things that are happening at this university,” school trustee Kenneth Frazier said at a board meeting this month. Frazier heads the trustees committee overseeing the Freeh investigation, and findings are expected to be released around the start of the next academic year in late August.
Despite the focus on the Freeh report, “the life of the university goes on unabated,” Frazier said.
Indeed, more than 8,500 seniors graduated two weeks ago at the system’s main campus in State College. The university could have its biggest incoming class in six years this fall with acceptances increasing 6 percent, Penn State President Rodney Erickson has said.
And a student-organized dance marathon in February, billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, raised a record $10.68 million to benefit pediatric cancer patients and research.
Still, any news is typically overshadowed by developments in the Sandusky scandal and what figures to be a contentious trial that could last for weeks.
“This is a painful episode, but Penn State is going to come out at the other end a much, much better university,” said Ryan McCombie, a retired Navy SEAL captain and 1970 graduate who was elected this month by alumni to be a trustee.
“Getting from here to there is going to be difficult,” McCombie said in an interview Thursday. “It’s just a matter of getting through this experience and coming out at the other end in a manner of integrity and class.”
The trustees election presented a possible step forward. Many supporters of Penn State, including the three people who were eventually elected to the board, had been critical of the board’s actions in November in the aftermath of Sandusky’s arrest, specifically the ouster of the late Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno. The election was cast as a way to effect change to the 32-member board. In addition to McCombie, also elected were attorney and former football player Adam Taliaferro and financial services executive Anthony Lubrano, a prominent donor. They join the board at its next meeting in July.
One of the biggest issues with alumni appears to be a desire to honor Paterno, perhaps by naming the field at the school’s football stadium after him. Paterno was beloved in the community not only for winning two national titles and a Division I record 409 victories, but also for emphasizing academics and philanthropic efforts.
Trustees chairwoman Karen Peetz and other board members have said they plan to honor Paterno, but would like to wait for results of the Freeh investigation.
“It’s going to be very difficult to engage the alumni on any of the other issues until the Paterno issue is resolved,” McCombie said.
The anguish among some alumni was still apparent at a recent stop in Bethlehem, Pa., on a bus tour of alumni strongholds for Penn State coaches. The caravan was part of an effort by Paterno’s successor as head coach, Bill O’Brien, to connect with the team’s massive fan base.
There are more than 575,000 Penn State alumni.
Four or five audience members referenced Paterno or the scandal during a question-and-answer period.
“Thanks for coming here, and remembering the past and remembering JoePa,” said one audience member who drew immediate applause. “We look forward to the future.”
Fans have treated O’Brien warmly. T-shirts and a few signs in the State College area brandish a new slogan: “Billeave,” playing off his name.
At the caravan’s last stop Wednesday night in Buffalo, N.Y., alumnus Joshua Lincoln, 32, of Fredonia, N.Y., was inspired by O’Brien’s talk and the turnout of about 150 people.
“A night like tonight does stress moving forward, getting on, moving on, getting the name back to where it was,” Lincoln said. “These nights are important. The alumni drive this college.”
The school also recently retooled its public relations efforts with the hiring last month of two firms, Edelman and La Torre Communications, to help deal with the fallout from the scandal. The firms will be paid about $2.5 million over the next year.
Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, also worked with Duke University after three lacrosse players were wrongly arrested on rape charges.
Harrisburg-based La Torre now primarily fields media calls related to the scandal, freeing more time for Penn State’s university relations department to work on or promote all other issues.
“One of the things we certainly learned is that we had a deficit in the crisis management department,” Peetz said after the May 4 trustees meeting.
To help move the school forward, Peetz said trustees decided a broad, all-encompassing effort was needed to help the healing process and engage with alumni, students, staff and faculty.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.