STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State University is reassessing the role of its football program in the wake of a child sexual abuse scandal that has led to criminal charges against a former assistant football coach and the ouster of iconic head coach Joe Paterno.
In his first extensive interview since taking office last month, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said Tuesday that he seeks to transform the university's public face from a football factory to a "world class research institution."
"We want that to be the front face of the university," said Erickson, who succeeded President Graham Spanier, who was ousted along with Paterno. Erickson said the sexual abuse charges involving eight victims should supply "urgency for discussions about the role of big-time athletics and where they interact with higher education."
Erickson, Penn State's former chief academic officer, said the university will establish a national Center for the Protection of Children to conduct research and provide treatment to victims of sexual abuse across the country.
The president said the center, which will draw experts from the university's 24 campuses, will be housed at Hershey Medical Center's Children's Hospital and will be initially funded with $2 million in college football bowl proceeds it is slated to receive from the Big Ten Conference.
"We are going to learn from this tragedy," Erickson said. "We are not going to run away from the issue of child abuse."
Erickson vowed that students, taxpayers and university donors would bear no responsibility for the mounting legal fees, potential settlements and other costs associated with the ongoing abuse investigation. Whatever the university's insurance policy does not cover will be raised privately, he said.
Since taking over Nov. 9, days after 40 abuse charges were lodged against Jerry Sandusky and separate perjury charges were filed against former athletic director Tim Curley and former senior vice president Gary Schultz, Erickson said he has not spoken to Paterno.
He said Paterno, the winningest coach in college football history who ran the program for nearly 50 years, will play no role in the search for a new head coach.
The president said he has not followed recent interviews of Sandusky, who has repeatedly asserted his innocence. Damon Sims, Penn State's vice president of student affairs, said Sandusky's public denials have prompted sexual abuse victims, unrelated to the Sandusky case, to come forward and seek help at university treatment outlets.
Sex abuse is "more common than I've understood," Sims said.