Penn State alumni posed tough questions and concerns for new university president Rodney Erickson Wednesday evening in Pittsburgh.
Erickson, who has committed to at least two years as president, held his first of three town hall meetings in front of a packed house at the Double Tree Hotel on Bigelow Square.
The meetings, which will also be held this week in Philadelphia and New York City, are sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association and are aimed at building better transparency with university leaders in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
During more than a hour of dialogue, alumni asked Erickson about varying topics, including the firing of Joe Paterno, where the school's internal investigation stands, how much money the university stands to lose in the wake of this scandal, and what Erickson and the Board of Trustees plan to do to prevent similar situations in the future.
One comment that received a standing ovation from the audience called for a "total realignment" of the Board of Trustees and a new system of electing, rather than appointing, members.
Erickson replied by saying alumni have the right to express their hopes for the future of the board, and did not rule out the possibility of changing the by-laws of the charter, warning only that it would take "some time" to accomplish.
He said the internal investigation into what the Board of Trustees may have known about the scandal prior to Sandusky's arrest on November 5 will likely be complete by the end of the spring semester.
Erickson also addressed concerns about the cost of the scandal and the possible affect it could have on tuition rates. He assured the audience that Penn State has multiple insurance policies that cover legal fees, civil damages and crisis communications costs.
For what those policies do not pick up, Erickson said there are funds set aside to pay additional costs that do not come from taxpayers, donors or tuition money, but rather from interest generated from internal university investments.
He also briefly talked about the firing of Joe Paterno, saying the legendary coach did wonderful things for the university over the years. He praised Sue Paterno as well for her "philanthropic contributions" to Penn State's library. He also assured alumni that the former coach will be honored by the university in the near future, saying plans are in the works.
Erickson spoke about preventing future disasters at Penn State by remaining open and honest with alumni and students. Specifically, he referenced the recent establishment of new educational incentives, as well as a toll-free hotline for sexual abuse victims and/or those who witness suspected abuse.
"We want to make sure that no one is afraid to report something they see for fear of retaliation or for fear of losing their jobs," he said. "No one should ever have to fear that reaction for reporting something that's suspicious or something that has happened. We need to change that."
Erickson wrapped up the meeting by telling alumni that if there are any positive effects that can come from the scandal, it's the hope that it will give victims of sexual abuse and those who witness it to come forward and not be ashamed in doing so.
The next town hall will be Thursday evening at the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge at King of Prussia, followed by a final meeting Friday at the Marriott Downtown in Manhattan. All three meetings were pre-booked to capacity.