Penn State trustees took no formal vote but the vast majority of members voiced support Sunday for the university president's acceptance of tough penalties imposed by the NCAA over the university's handling of its child molestation scandal.
Board chairwoman Karen Peetz told fellow trustees during a Sunday evening conference call that the panel could not vote because 10 days' notice of the meeting was required, an objection two members raised at the outset of the call. But more than two dozen members of the 32-member board then voiced support for President Rodney Erickson's decision and a desire to move forward, although many criticized the NCAA sanctions themselves.
The NCAA, citing "an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem" than the university's values, last month barred the school from postseason play for four years, fined it $60 million, stripped it of future scholarships and invalidated 112 of the football team's wins over the handling of abuse complaints against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in June of 45 child sexual abuse counts.
Gene Marsh, an attorney and former NCAA infractions official, told trustees Sunday that attempts to mitigate the sanctions went nowhere and they were essentially forced on the university. He said most NCAA board members favored the so-called "death penalty" — total shutdown of the football program — for multiple years, and even more sanctions beyond that.
"I was also told that the NCAA board thought it was the worst case of loss of institutional control they had ever seen, and that an even greater issue on their mind beyond the acts of individuals was the idea of a 'culture problem' at Penn State," he said.
Erickson told trustees that he was told that an overwhelming majority of NCAA officials "wanted blood" and the consent decree was "a take-it-or-leave-it proposition" — and any leak of details would take the deal off the table. After consulting with the university's executive committee and receiving legal advice that he had the power to do so, he signed the agreement, he said.
"I have to tell you that this was far and away the most difficult decision I've ever made in my 40-year professional career," he said. He said losing the football program for several years would have harmed that program, possibly including expulsion from the Big 10 conference, as well as other sports programs, and "an empty stadium for multiple years would have a drastic impact on the economy of central Pennsylvania and beyond."
Member after member then spoke in support of the president's decision, many saying he faced an impossible choice and acted in the best interests of the university, and many said it was time for board members to unite and move on.
Gov. Tom Corbett, who serves on the board, said he believed the NCAA sanctions "went beyond the mission and oversight authority of the organization, but that argument is for another day." Erickson, Corbett said, "faced a dilemma of two very undesirable choices. He chose, I think correctly, the lesser of the two severe punishments."
Trustee Samuel Hayes Jr. called Erickson "an honorable man ... faced with impossible alternatives."
Trustee Anthony Lubrano, however, said he too wanted to move forward but "not at the price of our proud past." He criticized the actions of the NCAA and the resources it relied upon, especially the school's internal investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, the findings of which he called "so inconsistent with reality that I find them to be intentionally inflammatory."
"For example, Penn State athletics has served as a model program for the NCAA member institutions, contrary to the assertion that Penn State athletics had a 'culture problem.' For those of us involved with Penn State athletics, we know just how untrue that is."
Erickson said the agreement with the NCAA would allow for changes based on the agreement of both parties, but Marsh warned that the NCAA had never before granted "time off for good behavior."
The family of former football coach Joe Paterno, who was ousted shortly before his death in January, has sought to appeal the NCAA's decision, but the organization has said the decision is not subject to appeals.
Trustee Ryan McCombie also said he would appeal but told fellow members Sunday that he had told his attorney to refrain from legal action "to allow for sufficient time for full and deliberate review." His attorney later said McCombie had agreed to "temporarily suspend" the appeal but had not agreed to withdraw it.