By Mark Shade
STATE COLLEGE, Pa (Reuters) - Penn State officials on Wednesday said applications to attend the university that has been rocked by a sex abuse scandal are ahead of last year and reassured students worried about the school's reputation.
"Prospective students are saying, 'I really want to come to Penn State. I understand this isn't something that represents the whole university,'" Penn State President Rodney Ericksontold more than 400 students in a packed university auditorium who gathered for an evening question and answer session.
Of the 40,000 undergraduate applications received, only eight have withdrawn their applications, Erickson said, adding that applications are about 4 percent ahead of "last year's record rate."
Student questions were polite but often anxious following the shock news on November 5 that Jerry Sandusky, longtime former assistant to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, had been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over more than a decade.
The allegations forced the firing of Paterno and dismissal of university President Graham Spanier. Athletic Director Tim Curley and finance official Gary Schultz were also charged with perjury by the grand jury, with investigations continuing.
Paterno has not been charged and lawyers for all three accused have said they are innocent of the charges.
On Wednesday none of the students, who were joined by students watching via satellite at Penn State's many branch campuses, mentioned Sandusky, Curley or Schultz by name.
One student asked if there was a "rush to judgment" by the Penn State Board of Administrators in firing Paterno, while another student asked if the school was planning to take down the bronze Paterno statue outside of Beaver Stadium and to rename the library that now bears his name.
Erickson simply said "no" when a student asked if the university was bullied by national media into firing Paterno. There were no plans to remove the statue or change the library name, he said.
But students wondered how the scandal might affect tuition next school year and some worried that state lawmakers would punish Penn State by slashing its state aid.
"A lot of us are worried how the scandal is going to affect us after graduation," one student, a junior, asked Erickson and the seven other school administrators who joined him to answer questions during the two-hour forum.
Damon Sims, Penn State's vice president for student affairs, said students "don't have to worry about that" because many of the school's alumni are "re-emphasizing their commitment" for new graduates.
"Alumni want to open doors for you," Commonwealth Campuses Vice President Madlyn Hanes said. "Employers are still very, very interested in our students. I hope you have solace with that," she said.
"Perhaps this experience will make you a better person; a better employee," said Terrell Jones, PSU's vice provost for educational equity.
Henry Foley, Penn State's dean of graduate school, said the immediate task at hand for the university is to regain student trust and prepare them for the end of the fall semester.
"None of you are guilty," Foley told the students. "You may feel shame, but none of you are guilty of anything."
(Editing by Peter Bohan)