After Abuse Scandal, Penn State Alums Battle For Board Spots

A contentious battle for a spot on Penn State's board of trustees is dividing the university's alumni community. While some candidates and alums focus on the past, others want to push beyond the abuse scandal that shook the school over the last two years. With so much at stake for the much-loved school, some say the board of trustees election is playing out more like a contentious political race for mayor or Congress, not just a spot on a university board.

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It's been a tumultuous few years at Penn State University, as a result of the child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Well, Penn State alumni are now casting ballots for some key people in the life of the university - the Board of Trustees - and the competition is intense. Nearly 40 candidates are vying for three seats reserved for alumni. We get that story from Elizabeth Fiedler, of member station WHYY.

ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: Returning to the days when Penn State's name isn't accompanied by the word "scandal" is a goal for many alums. It's just a question of which road to take. Maribeth Schmidt is with Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship. The group takes issue with a damning report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that found fear of bad publicity motivated school officials to ignore child abuse.

MARIBETH SCHMIDT: We're very interested in having the Board of Trustees repudiate the findings of the Freeh report and also, revisit the sanctions.

FIEDLER: Schmidt says the NCAA penalties, which include a fine and vacated football wins, must be addressed; and she says the reputation of ousted football coach Joe Paterno must be restored.

SCHMIDT: I think we'd like to see the Board of Trustees revisit the way that they terminated coach Paterno and do right by his family. The man served Penn State for 61 years of his life.

FIEDLER: Schmidt says the Penn State community simply can't move on until the wrongs of the past are addressed. Penn State has the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world, including many who feel connected to the university, and its fate, long after they leave campus. Penn State alum Pratima Gatehouse says she's running for a spot on the board to help guide the institution. She says it would be a mistake to only focus on the past.

PRATIMA GATEHOUSE: I think that it would be a shame if people only got excited about that one issue, and we're 10 years down the road, and we're continuing to decline as a research institution; or we have students who can't afford to graduate, and have to drop out, because we're focused on the NCAA sanctions.

FIEDLER: Candidates are trying to reach alums by any means available.

JEFF JUBELIRER: All for an election that pays zero dollars, at a time in the university's history that is very, very sad.

FIEDLER: That's Penn State grad Jeff Jubelirer.

JUBELIRER: This Penn State Board of Trustees election this year is unlike any political campaign that I've worked on. It is more intense. It is just as negative than anything that is run in a - Congress, or mayoral campaigns in Philadelphia.

FIEDLER: Jubelirer has advised candidates running for office in Pennsylvania. Now, he's facing a real challenge: helping his father's campaign for a seat on the Penn State Board of Trustees.

JUBELIRER: You have more than 600,000 living alumni across the world, and no particular way to reach all of them; and so you have to spend money, or do things on social media and hope that you're connecting with the passionate alums - and there's so many of them.

FIEDLER: Jubelirer says he hopes electing more board members with a reform agenda will begin a move toward increased transparency. That process, he says, will no doubt take longer than a year. Penn State alums have until tomorrow to cast their ballots.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia.

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