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Pennsylvania State University's divided board of trustees treated Nittany Lions fans to a rare public debate Wednesday.
Trustees voted, 19-8, in favor of a litigation settlement proposal that would bind the state-backed university to "remain committed to full compliance with the Consent Decree" signed with the NCAA in 2012.
The deal would uphold the original $60 million payment, management reforms, and football program sanctions that came in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal. The vote also directs that the $60 million be spent within Pennsylvania to prevent sexual abuse of children and to help the victims of those crimes.
The settlement, if accepted in court, could be used to resolve state and federal litigation ignited by the NCAA decree.
The vote made plain how divided the school remains over events that blighted the legacy of the late football coach Joe Paterno, long Penn State's dominant personality: All eight elected alumni trustees voted against the resolution - affirming their contentions that the university's officials too readily accepted the sanctions, as well as the scathing report on the scandal issued by Louis J. Freeh, a former head of the FBI.
Trustees selected from state government and business and farm groups backed the plan.
The alumni trustees said the penalties were based on unproven criticism of former university president Graham Spanier, Paterno, and the school's sports-centric culture, as detailed in the Freeh investigation, which blamed the school and its top-ranking officials, including Paterno, for failing to stop Sandusky from molesting young boys on the campus.
University leaders agreed to the consent decree and the sanctions. Since then, in annual elections, angry alumni have voted out trustees who supported the decree and replaced them with critics.
A Commonwealth Court ruling in April questioned the decree's validity under state law and urged the board to review the deal in hopes of settling legal challenges and easing sanctions. Monday's meeting at the Penn Stater Hotel was the first time the whole board met to talk over the 2012 agreement.
Alumni trustees had accused a small group of leaders of rushing the consent decree and the proposed settlement into action. But chairman Keith Masser was able to show that a majority of the board backs both.
Business trustee Richard Dandrea, a lawyer, told the group that a "yes" vote would reinforce "the university's commitment to doing what it can to avoid a repeat of the Sandusky episode," and the hope of a speedier end to crippling NCAA football sanctions.
Let the consent decree "run maybe a couple more years," suggested business trustee Edward Hintz. "[If not] I'd be very concerned that the NCAA would look upon this as backtracking on some of the things which we already accomplished."
"If you believe that the majority of alumni simply want to move on, you are mistaken. This isn't about football," said alumni trustee Anthony Lubrano. "This is about the integrity of this institution."
Hintz said Penn State has prospered despite the sanctions: "We have the largest applications at any time by any size to Penn State. We've raised $2.1 billion over the last several years. I don't know how such a terrible reputation, that you think we've had, can match up with the statistics."
"With all due respect to my colleague from the Class of 1959, Ed Hintz, I couldn't disagree with him more," shot back ex-State Sen. Robert Jubelirer, an alumni trustee. "[Alumni] want to see their university do the right thing."
The divide raises questions about why business executives, farmers, Gov. Corbett's appointees, or alumni, for that matter, should be allotted board seats.
Alumni trustee Albert Lord has challenged the current arrangement, saying it gives the state a lot more power than its relatively small and dwindling proportion of Penn State funding should entitle it. Lord says Penn State should have a board as strong, national, and ready to help as any Ivy League school.
The board will consider governance changes at a Friday meeting. The committee in charge is headed by farm trustee Keith Eckel, who has told me he thinks Penn State's board is fine - at least as good as those of the state's regional colleges.