STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State's embattled Board of Trustees meets Friday for the first time since the chaotic week in November when shocking child sex abuse allegations were brought against a retired assistant football coach.
In the frantic first few days after authorities charged Jerry Sandusky, trustees ousted Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno and school President Graham Spanier, and pledged to uncover the truth. Their actions have since left some anguished alumni and former players questioning the trustees themselves.
After remaining mostly silent the last two months, trustees this week began to divulge the reasons behind their actions, hoping to sway skeptics and critics seeking change.
Leadership positions will be up for election at Friday's meeting, which is open to the public. Also listed on the agenda is an overview of athletic programs.
"We have lots of things that we need to do in terms of the board and how it operates, and I think you'll see some positive things come out of that," trustee Mark Dambly said Thursday.
Some critics of the trustees have called for wholesale changes in how the board operates in order to better promote transparency. Trustee Stephanie Deviney said governance and the administration are among the topics trustees plan to consider.
The issues have also drawn unprecedented interest among potential candidates for three alumni-elected seats on the board up for a vote this spring.
Typically, about six to 12 candidates express interest. But the group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship alone has received 30 applications seeking an endorsement. The group started in mid-November, growing out of what a spokeswoman said was a common frustration among members over a lack of due process at the school.
Comments this week by the trustees about why the board ousted Paterno on Nov. 9, four days after Sandusky was charged, failed to convince the alumni group, too.
Trustees interviewed Thursday by The Associated Press said they decided to force Paterno out in part because he didn't meet a moral obligation to do more to alert authorities about a child sex abuse allegation against Sandusky.
The trustees interviewed also cited statements from Paterno in the days and hours leading to his dismissal — after nearly a half-century of leading the Nittany Lions — that they felt challenged the trustees' authority. Board members saw that as inappropriate, particularly at a time of intense scrutiny over the Sandusky case.
Sandusky was charged with dozens of child sex abuse counts four days before Paterno was pushed out. The head coach had testified before a state grand jury about a 2002 allegation against Sandusky that was passed on to him by a graduate assistant.
A day after the graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, came to see him, Paterno relayed the accusations to his superiors, one of whom oversaw campus police. Board members didn't think that was enough.
"There's an obligation, a moral responsibility, for all adults to watch out for children, either your own or someone else," Dambly said. "It was in our opinion that Joe Paterno did not meet his moral obligation and for that reason — me, personally for that reason, I felt he could no longer lead the university and it was unanimous."
But Dambly and three other trustees interviewed Thursday on the Penn State campus said they still intended to honor Paterno's accomplishments and contributions to the school. He won a Division I record 409 games over 46 seasons and the Paterno family has donated millions of dollars to the school.
"Obviously Joe Paterno is a worldwide icon and has done a tremendous amount for the university," trustee Joel Myers said. "We have sorrow and all kinds of emotions, empathy, sympathy for what has occurred. That's universal.
"But the university, this institution is greater than one person."
An attorney for Paterno on Thursday called the board's comments self-serving and unsupported by the facts. Paterno fully reported what he knew to the people responsible for campus investigations, lawyer Wick Sollers said.
"He did what he thought was right with the information he had at the time," Sollers said.
In a separate statement, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship said the board's comments have "done nothing but raise additional questions."
"We can conclude, that consequently, their hasty and panicked damage control efforts in the first days of November, and the uncomfortable position they found themselves in, being caught flat-footed, instead of in a proactive leadership position, led to the unjust firing of Joe Paterno, without so much as a conversation, let alone complete due process," the group's statement said.
The trustees described the long deliberations in the days leading up to Paterno's ouster as emotional and nerve wracking, echoing the confusion and anguish also felt among students and alumni as the scandal unfolded. They were shocked by the lurid details that had emerged about the case that week, after having been given a short briefing about Sandusky months earlier by Spanier and general counsel Cynthia Baldwin. That session lasted roughly 7 minutes and provided few insights, trustees said.
Paterno was dismissed the same day Spanier also departed under pressure. The board initiated an internal investigation into the Sandusky case and the role of Penn State officials.
Since then, some alumni and former players have been questioning the actions of the trustees — criticism that boiled over in three town hall-style meetings last week hosted for alumni by new school President Rodney Erickson.
According to Dambly, trustees had been advised not to speak because of the ongoing investigations but changed their minds following the town hall sessions.
They began a series of interviews this week with media outlets. Also sitting in Thursday's interview with the AP was Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington attorney who has been retained by Erickson and the trustees as an adviser.
"We determined as a group that the Board of Trustees needed to answer the questions of what we knew, when we knew it and why we made the decisions that we made," Dambly said.
The trustees on Thursday cited three reasons for Paterno's immediate removal as head coach. Besides the moral obligation to do more in conjunction with reporting the 2002 allegation and statements issued by Paterno they felt may have challenged trustees' authority, the trustees also said there was concern that Paterno would not be able to properly represent the school if allowed to stay on as head coach the rest of the 2011 season.
According to The Washington Post, trustees vice chair John Surma told Paterno, "In the best interests of the university, you are terminated." Paterno hung up and repeated the words to his wife, who redialed the number.
"After 61 years he deserved better," Sue Paterno said. "He deserved better." Then she hung up.
According to Davis on Thursday, Surma never got the chance to say two more things that night: that he regretted having to tell him the decision over the phone; and that the school was going to honor his contract and retirement package as if he had retired at the end of 2011.
Dambly insisted Paterno was not fired, although he never appeared as coach again. He remains a tenured faculty member.