President Rodney A. Erickson of Pennsylvania State University told an alumni crowd here Wednesday night that "openness and communication" would be the guiding principles of his tenure at the helm of the state's flagship institution. But his measured responses to audience questions during a 90-minute town-hall-style meeting made clear that candidness has its limits during a continuing investigation into horrific accusations of child sexual abuse in campus athletic facilities.
Mr. Erickson, who became Penn State's 17th president in November, promised his questioners that more answers would be forthcoming when the investigation had concluded and when the man at the center of the sexual-abuse accusations, the former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, had gone to trial.
Many of the questions from the crowd of more than 600 people centered on the Board of Trustees' lack of transparency and its abrupt firing of Joe Paterno, the Penn State icon who was in his 62nd year on Penn State's football staff and his 46th year as head coach. "How could you discharge him without a fair trial?" one alumnus pleaded.
Mr. Erickson, of course, had no hand in the firing of Mr. Paterno or of Penn State's 16th president, Graham B. Spanier. But the new president, who has agreed to lead the university through June 2014, had placed himself in the hot seat by agreeing to answer questions from a generally polite but occasionally restive audience.
One of the sharpest reactions came in response to a question that was submitted beforehand in writing. The moderator of the event, Patty Satalia, was interrupted by loud cheers as she read aloud from the card: "What, if any, are the plans to realign the makeup of the Board of Trustees to give alumni and students more of a voice on the board? It seems to me that the Board of Trustees should step down and a new one [be] created under a new charter with a majority of the seats to be elected seats."
Penn State's board has 32 members, only nine of whom are elected by the alumni. That fact was not lost on the members of the audience, many of whom groaned loudly at Mr. Erickson's response: "I think the board will have to make those decisions."
President Erickson nonetheless drew several rounds of applause as he expressed pride in Penn State and emphasized that one man's actions cannot tarnish the positive achievements of an entire university.
"We can't forget what's there in the rearview mirror," Mr. Erickson said. "But we've got to put our eyes forward."
The Penn State Alumni Association arranged the event, which is the first of three town-hall meetings with alumni. A second meeting will take place on Thursday night near Philadelphia, and the third will be held in New York City on Friday. The New York event will be Webcast at alumnitownhall.psu.edu.