STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State’s Board of Trustees elected banking executive Karen Peetz to lead the embattled board and help the school negotiate the aftermath of a nightmarish child sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant football coach.
The trustees picked Peetz to be president of the 32-member board in a voice vote Friday. She is vice chairman of The Bank of New York Mellon. The trustees also elected farm owner Keith Masser as the vice chair. Like Peetz, he was unopposed.
They’re replacing Steve Garban and John Surma, respectively, who guided the board in the two tumultuous months since Jerry Sandusky was charged with dozens of counts of child sex abuse. They decided not to run for another yearlong term as board officers.
Under Garban and Surma’s watch, the board ousted football coach Joe Paterno and promised to uncover the truth behind the Sandusky case and Penn State officials’ involvement in it through an internal investigation.
In recent weeks, the trustees have felt increasing heat from some former alumni and players critical of how Paterno’s firing was handled, and what’s been seen as a lack of openness on the board.
“The first thing I want to say to the entire Penn State community is that we have been through a very difficult experience together. We have tried to do the right thing,” Peetz said. “All of us, including the board, with the wisdom of hindsight could have done things differently.”
She said the board agreed it would focus on three themes … “the first is change, the second is reform and the third is transparency.”
Sandusky, a longtime defensive coordinator who helped Paterno win two national titles, is out on bail and awaiting trial after denying charges that he abused 10 boys over 15 years.
The scandal resulting from his arrest Nov. 5 has had wide-ranging implications going beyond Paterno and the storied football program.
Since Sandusky was charged, the university has cited its status as a state-related university — along with Temple, Pitt and Lincoln — in denying requests by The Associated Press for documents related to a 1998 investigation into Sandusky that began when a woman complained he had showered with her son, a copy of his severance agreement and emails among top administrators about Sandusky.
Some state lawmakers have called for a change in the commonwealth’s three-year-old open records law to get rid of an exemption that allows Penn State and the other state-related universities to keep their operations out of the public eye while receiving taxpayer money.
“We have to decide, the board has to decide, whether they’re going to be a public entity that receives public funds or a private entity,” said Gov. Tom Corbett, who also is a trustee. “But it is something that is incumbent on the board in the next few weeks and months that the decision has to be made.”
The board is also undertaking its own investigation into the case. Ken Frazier, the trustee overseeing the effort, said results of the probe may now not come until next fall — if then. Frazier added there was no “artificial timetable” — he wants to give investigators ample time for thorough questioning.
Trustees have tabbed former FBI director Louis Freeh as their lead investigator. Frazier maintained Freeh, who has an office on campus, had free rein over the investigation and would not be beholden to pressures from the board or other university administrators.
Peetz also reiterated that the university “will find a way to make sure Penn State helps the victims of this tragedy.
“Immediately, we will reach out to the victims we know of and seek to pay for their abuse-related health costs, to pay for related counseling that they’ve had to have to date and pay for counseling going forward related to abuse,” she said. School President Rodney Erickson declined to give a range about how much it might cost.
General counsel Cynthia Baldwin said the university has been served legal notice that it was the subject of a second civil complaint related to the Sandusky case, though the lawsuit had not been filed. The first known civil suit was filed in late November.
The departures of Garban and Surma from leadership positions had nothing to do with the investigation, Frazier said. Garban had decided in November to step aside as the chairman, citing his past ties to the university and as a former football player.
Surma, an executive at U.S. Steel, said the duties of the board during the scandal increasingly took much time away from his job.
The board also approved five recommendations from Freeh, including a strengthening of school policies for programs involving minors; prompt reporting of allegations of abuse; and increased security measures within the athletic department.
It was the trustees’ first meeting since the chaotic week in November after Sandusky was charged, when Paterno was dumped and former school president Graham Spanier also was pushed out.
The meeting, in the ballroom of a campus hotel, drew a larger-than-normal crowd of at least 200 people, including a couple of candidates hoping to win election to the board this spring. Former Penn State running back Franco Harris, a vocal critic of the administration and a Paterno supporter, also attended and held a question-and-answer session afterward attended by about 100 people.
They listened to Harris and another critic, prominent donor and alumni Anthony Lubrano, air their grievances about the firing of Paterno and the way Penn State’s Board of Trustees functions. There were several white poster boards propped up in the front of the room with famous Joe Paterno quotes.
The crowd was very receptive to the duo, nodding their heads with each points and, at times, erupting into applause.
“It’s going to take people like you, here in this room, spreading the word,” Harris told the crowd. “It’s not a Penn State sex scandal, it’s not a Penn State football sex scandal, it’s not a Joe Paterno sex scandal. It’s a Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. And what the board did was wrong.”
The trustees have said Paterno was ousted in part because he had a moral obligation to pass on to police a 2002 allegation that was relayed to him by a graduate assistant. Paterno told his superiors at the university about the accusation, and authorities have said the coach is not a target of their criminal investigation.
“We still have respect and gratitude for coach Paterno’s legacy and for his many contributions to Penn State,” Peetz said, “and to (fired school President Graham) Spanier for his years of dedicated service and leadership.”
She said they intended to honor Paterno at a future date, though the timing was uncertain given Paterno is being treated for lung cancer.