STATE COLLEGE — The executive committee of Penn State University’s trustees met for four minutes Friday to publicly reaffirm a top-level staff shake-up that was approved in private three weeks ago amid the unfolding child sex-abuse scandal surrounding former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
None of the eight committee members who participated in the brief teleconference actually attended the public session at the Nittany Lion Inn. Instead, their voices were audible over a loudspeaker placed on a table surrounded by empty chairs.
They unanimously approved resolutions stating that the removal of Joe Paterno as football coach was “in the best interest of Penn State;” that the trustees determined and former Penn State President Graham Spanier concurred that he should step down; and that Rodney Erickson has been appointed as his successor. All three actions were effective Nov. 9 — the date that the full board initially voted on them behind closed doors and subsequently announced publicly.
Some critics said the initial meeting violated the state Sunshine Law, which governs public access to meetings of public agencies. Without acknowledging any such violation, university spokesman Bill Mahon characterized the executive committee meeting as an effort to “cross our T’s and dot our I’s.”
Trustees chairman Steve Garban opened Friday’s meeting by reading a statement that cited “extraordinary circumstances” as the reason the board needed to act “swiftly and decisively” on Nov. 9.
The full board of trustees will be asked to approve all three actions again at its Jan. 20 meeting, Mahon said.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said state courts have established through case law that a public agency that violates the Sunshine Law may “cure” the violation by repeating the action in a public setting, as the university is doing.
“It would be very, very unlikely that a challenge would win against the board,” she said.
Sandusky, who retired from Penn State in 1999 after serving as Paterno’s top defensive assistant for more than two decades, is accused of abusing eight boys over 15 years. He allegedly met many of them through The Second Mile, a charity he founded in 1977 to help at-risk youth. Sandusky insists he is innocent.
Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, who has been placed on administrative leave, and former university vice president Gary Schultz are charged with perjury and failure to report a 2002 report in which a graduate assistant for the football team said he witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy of about 10 years old on campus. Lawyers for both men say they are innocent.
The board has hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to head up Penn State’s internal investigation into the child sex abuse allegations.
Neither Paterno nor Spanier has been criminally charged in connection with the case.
Many Penn State students have been vocal in their support for Paterno, who was in his 46th season when he became the only school leader to be fired in connection with the case. Paterno’s daughter, Mary Kay, stood with reporters and joined in their questioning of Mahon after Friday’s session.
Spanier, who holds tenure in the university’s colleges of liberal arts and health human development, is on a sabbatical and could resume teaching in a year “if he has the interest in doing so,” Mahon said.