Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Penn State President Rodney Erickson might have preferred to focus on his university's award-winning faculty, its service-minded students or even ever-rising tuition.
But a day after the school's former president, Graham Spanier, was charged with five criminal counts in connection with the child abuse scandal that continues to keep the campus in the national spotlight for a year and counting, questions about the investigation and its aftermath were perhaps unavoidable during an appearance Friday at the National Press Club.
"Beyond the headlines, there's another reality," he said in opening remarks. "By any reasonable definition, they are newsworthy stories. But I understand you may not be willing to listen to them until we show you how this year has changed us."
He said he found hope in the candlelight vigil held on campus honoring the victims of child sexual assault shortly after the scandal broke, and the ongoing work by students and alumni to raise awareness of the issue. Earlier this week, Penn State sponsored a two-day conference on the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse.
During a question and answer session, Erickson's, whose speech was delayed by two days because of Hurricane Sandy, declined to comment on Thursday's new criminal charges, but agreed that "clearly there should have been additional followup" more than a decade ago when reports involving Jerry Sandusky's behavior began to surface and said the university hoped to reach settlements related to pending lawsuits.
"Our work continues ... and we can expect more fallout to come," he said. Penn State continues to move forward and embrace the challenges.
Back on campus, many students are eager to put the scandal behind them.
"We're just trying to cope as best we can. We're all here for a reason, to get degrees, and so while it has to be on our minds we still have to be focused on doing what we came here to do," senior John Zang, chief of staff of the undergraduate student government association, said Thursday in response to the Spanier charges.
Anger lingers, much of it centering on the blistering July report by former FBI director Louis Freeh, and the sanctions later imposed by the NCAA. Freeh, retained by Penn State trustees to investigate how things went wrong, condemned the "total disregard for the safety and welfare" of Sandusky's victims by top officials.
The trustees promised to act on Freeh's 119 recommendations, chief among them that the community "vigorously examine and understand the Penn State culture." Trustees also agreed to a $60 million fine by the NCAA and a four-year football postseason ban.
The university has completed or nearly completed 40 of Freeh's recommendations. For example, it has hired a full-time officer to ensure compliance with federal crime-reporting requirements, and publicly posted the contracts of key officials, including the president, head football coach and acting athletic director.
Many faculty, students, alumni and other Penn State backers felt the judgments -- and the penalties -- far too harsh. A group of 30 former faculty chairs decried the NCAA's "collective punishment of the entire university community." Members of a grass-roots group of alumni, students, local businesses and other Penn State stakeholders criticized the university's acceptance of the findings.
"We would view the trustees and the president's handling of the past year as an epic failure," says Maribeth Roman Schmidt, a 1988 alum and spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship. Membership has swelled to more than 15,000, she says.
The university has suffered other setbacks since then. The state's auditor general, the watchdog for state taxpayers, has called for reforms in governance. In light of pending lawsuits, Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service last week downgraded Penn State's long-term financial outlook.
In August, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education demanded that the school undergo a compliance review or risk losing its accreditation, a stamp of approval it needs to receive federal student aid. The Education Department is investigating whether it violated federal crime-reporting laws.
Meanwhile, faculty also are divided, with some critical of the Freeh investigation and others acknowledging a need for reforms but seeking a more prominent role in how the university moves forward.
"To some extent they continue to feel like they are spectators," says law professor Larry Backer, chair of the faculty senate.
Last month, the group decided, in a close vote, against formally criticizing the Freeh report. The student government association appears eager to lay the issue of NCAA sanctions to rest. "We feel as though we are finally at a point of closure where the process of moving forward can begin," the student group said in a statement in response to the faculty vote.
But that's not always easy.
"Penn State students are eager to learn from these mistakes but, as equally important, to make sure something like this never happens again," says senior Joshua Branch, a political science major.
Upon learning Thursday of the charges against Spanier, Branch sighed. "Every time the campus starts to heal, something else comes out."