Incumbents Face Tough Road for Reelection on the Penn State Board of Trustees
The current political landscape in Happy Valley is almost unrecognizable from what it was in the spring of 2010, the last time Stephanie Deviney and Paul Suhey ran for the Penn State Board of Trustees. Graham Spanier was president, Steve Garban served as the board’s chair, and Tim Curley headed the athletic department. And of course, Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines.
During the past 16 months, Penn State’s most powerful group of 32 made decisions that would not only reverberate across Centre County, but would take over front pages and prime-time television across the nation.
The two board decisions garnering the brunt of the criticism from the Penn State community are unquestionably clear — the unanimous choice to remove Joe Paterno as head coach and the unwillingness to refute the Freeh report, which resulted in significant collateral damage like the NCAA sanctions. Those decisions, among others, spawned a new interest — and for some, new hatred — toward the board that has been attempting to navigate through the multi-year media storm that is the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
With another year in the books, it’s campaign season again in Happy Valley, and this spring, the two incumbents are trying to overcome cynical advertising, eroded friendships, and scathing comments from alumni to secure another term on the Penn State Board of Trustees.
A Different Kind of Campaign
While few public endorsements have been made, denouncement crusades are already well underway.
It has been apparent since last summer — if it was up to some alumni, they would have canned the entire board months ago. With that in mind, many of these Penn State graduates view the upcoming alumni trustee election as not only a chance to put someone who represents their beliefs on the board, but also as an opportunity to remove those who are considered to have failed the university since fall 2011. Consequently, as this billboard depicts, a certain segment of the Penn State community is hell-bent to expel Deviney and Suhey from the board.
The billboard, erected two weeks ago on Beaver Avenue, was commissioned by Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, the grassroots alumni organization that hopes to vote out the two incumbents.
“While we’re narrowing our candidates down to who we will endorse as an organization, we wanted to take time to remind the voting alumni of how Suhey and Deviney responded when we needed them most,” said Maribeth Roman Schmidt, the Public Relations Coordinator for PS4RS, in a phone interview.
Schmidt, a Penn State alumna herself, says the Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions took an “unsubstantiated swipe at Penn State culture” and used the community’s focus on football as the reason why Jerry Sandusky was able to roam Happy Valley for so many years. PS4RS is upset that both incumbents have failed to fight back in both instances.
“We chose to focus on that concept of Penn State ‘culture’ because that’s completely ludicrous — and anyone with ties to Penn State knows it. We know that Penn State is, and has always been, the model for the integration of athletics and academics,” Schmidt said. “It was the duty of the trustees to defend Penn State at that point. There were 31 of them who could have stood up and said this isn’t our culture…Not a single person around that table stood up to defend Penn State, including Paul Suhey who was a product of the Grand Experiment.”
While some trustees would argue otherwise, PS4RS doesn’t quite view the ads as malicious.
“In our opinion, the ads are not negative, they are informative,” Schmidt said. “They state facts. And if the facts themselves happen to be negative, then I think that’s a reflection of the trustees, and the decisions they’ve chose to make.”
Schmidt added that Deviney and Suhey have lost the confidence and credibility of just about every Penn State graduate she has spoken to in the last year.
“They continue to demonstrate that they are completely out of touch with the feelings of alumni,” she said. “We’re the ones who elected them in the first place.”
The offensive isn’t limited to PS4RS or their local billboards either, as some recent social media profiles have begun to pop up on Facebook and Twitter. The “Reject Stephanie Nolan Deviney From the Penn State Board of Trustees” Facebook page has nearly three times as many “likes” as her official campaign page. And while Deviney does tend to interact with commenters on her page, many of the remarks on the page tend to be on the hostile side.
A recent troupe of parody accounts have also debuted on Twitter in the last couple months. One particular account, @NotPaulSuhey, takes aim at the four-term incumbent, posting tweets that mock some of the board’s actions and statements.
This could just be the start, as there’s still about five weeks left in the alumni campaign season. Although Schmidt couldn’t say for sure, the combative PS4RS campaigns could continue right up until late April, when Penn State alumni will elect three of their own to the board. At this point, it all depends on the members’ financial contributions.
But for right now, “Everybody is chipping in,” according to Schmidt.
A Severed Friendship
The Paternos and Suheys — two Penn State families who have been a fixture in Centre County for decades — have been deeply interwoven through the evolution of Penn State and its football program. Dating back the 1940s, three generations of Suheys played their football in Happy Valley. Five Suheys, including incumbent trustee Paul, were members of the “Grand Experiment” under the late Joe Paterno. Shortly after Joe’s son Scott was born, one of the Suheys was chosen to be his godmother. As the years passed, the families developed a relationship that was bonded in the timeless nature of the Nittany Valley.
And while that family kinship still largely holds true, the relationship between a certain Suhey and a certain Paterno has withered to the point of near nonexistence.
It’s no secret to anyone in this town: Scott Paterno — and indeed, the Paterno family at large — is deeply upset with the actions of the Penn State Board of Trustees. Specifically, Paul Suhey has been the primary target of Paterno’s criticism. Paterno has stated publicly numerous times that he believes Suhey did not stand up and fight for the Penn State that his father, along with millions of alumni, have helped shape in the university’s prestigious history.
“Paul and others owed it to Penn State, the tens of thousands of living alumni, our faculty and staff, and all who have sacrificed to build it into a world class institution with a culture that was the envy of the world to STAND AND FIGHT,” Paterno said in an email last week. “Not doing so betrayed my family and his Penn State family.”
“Let me be clear — while I believe my analysis of his failings as a board member are accurate and fair, I will not claim to be impartial,” Paterno said. “Paul’s words and deeds are deeply personal and offensive.”
According to Paterno, the two have communicated no more than twice since Nov. 9, 2011, the night Joe Paterno was relieved of his duties as head football coach. Paterno claims that he spoke and texted with Suhey “when he was trying to spin” this New York Times article, which was published just days before his father passed away last January.
More than six months later, Paterno reached out to Suhey “to invite him to stand up for Penn State and fight the NCAA sanctions” when freshman trustee Ryan McCombie hired legal representatives to appeal the potentially crippling sanctions, “but he declined to act on behalf of Penn State,” Paterno said.
Lastly, Paterno called Suhey and left him a voicemail a couple months ago, encouraging him not to run for another term on the board “as it is almost certain he will lose,” Paterno said, citing the many alumni and groups such as PS4RS who have firmly taken a stance against the local orthopedic surgeon. “I genuinely love the rest of his family and a publicly airing on why Paul is unfit to serve is no source of joy,” Paterno said.
Paterno believes Suhey, the captain of the 1979 Nittany Lion football team, betrayed his family after failing to acknowledging the recently-released Paterno report.
“Here is a man who should have known better, but even after having the benefit of reading our report still will not admit error,” Paterno said. “He won’t even ask the authors to come in and discuss the differences in the conclusions reached by some very serious people on both sides.”
Even several lettermen, Paterno said, are disappointed by Suhey’s silence.
“Even if you want to believe Freeh’s deeply flawed and unsupported conclusions about JVP, the fact is there is NO evidence of a culture problem at Penn State,” Paterno said. “We graduated our players and did so without cheating. Not one game was altered as a result of any of the allegations against a handful of people, and Freeh found no evidence of any academic or NCAA-covered malfeasance. Yet Paul did not utter a single word in defense of Penn State or in defense of the hundreds and thousands of student athletes this decision painted with a tainted brush.”
While Paterno has taken a clear position against the board as a whole, he insists Suhey is the most culpable, given his experiences, background, and ties to the university and State College community.
“Here is a guy who lives in State College, has roots here, was raised here and was immersed in Penn State yet did nothing to stand up for a place he says he loves,” he said.
Furthermore, Paterno claims Suhey is the “the worst offender” of the 31 board members because of his recent “disingenuous use of Joe (Paterno) when it suits him.”
“He claimed he could be the bridge between Penn State and my family recently; he did so after I called and told him we would oppose his candidacy. Yet, in brazen fashion, he made it appear as though he could walk into my mother’s house again an emissary,” Paterno said.
As one would’ve expected, Scott Paterno did not take too kindly to a particular comment Suhey made recently to the Centre Daily Times.
“We retired him three weeks early,” Suhey infamously said in an interview with the CDT editorial board two weeks ago.
“(That’s) a sad attempt to try and use semantics to get around the truth. It’s silly to start with, as the season had nine weeks left when Paul voted to ‘terminate’ Dad’s employment effective immediately,” Paterno said. “It’s even more silly when you and your colleagues are on record saying you fired him. The reality is their explanation keeps changing because they can’t admit the real reason they did what they did — panic, cowardice, and fear.”
As many alumni have inquired of members of the board throughout the past 16 months, Paterno questions why Suhey didn’t take action or ask questions about the March 2011 Patriot-News report, which stated Jerry Sandusky was being investigated for inappropriately touching a boy over a four-year period.
“Remember that this is a guy who lived in State College, whose father coached with Jerry, who —
along with members of his family — played for him, and yet in March of 2011 he didn’t notice a story that was the talk of State College?” Paterno said. “He is either lying about what he heard at the time or too much a fool to have asked; either way, both answers for his conduct in March of 2011 demonstrate a total lack of the type of qualities this board needs in future members.”
“If we are to undue the damage of this mess — if Penn State is to emerge from this as both the world leader in the study and prevention of child sexual victimization and as the world class institution as it was before its board started inexplicably defaming it for the actions of, at worst, a very, very few — then we need better than Paul Suhey,” Paterno said. “It’s just that simple to me.”
Finally, Paterno asked alumni voters to put aside the decisions surrounding his father and to focus on the incumbents’ actions (or perceived inactions) in the spring of 2011 when it comes time to vote next month.
“Ignore what happened to Dad and ask yourself this question: Would any corporation keep a board in place so lazy or foolish that it asked no relevant questions when the first stories alleging an assault on Penn State’s campus surfaced in March?” Pateno said. “Of course not. And neither should we.”
When I asked Suhey about the criticisms he’s received from alumni and lettermen, why he didn’t ask more questions when PennLive published the March 2011 article, and his past and present relationship with Scott Paterno, he replied with the following email statement on Saturday:
“Penn State faces tremendous challenges. Making Penn State Clery compliant has been a daunting task for the university. We are searching for a new president that will guide our university in the years to come. Tuition costs have to be addressed so that working families can continue to send their children to a great institution like Penn State. The future of our Commonwealth campuses is being shaped.
“These are critical issues, but just a sample, that demand the attention of every trustee. I won’t engage in negative campaigning. Negative attacks have no place at Penn State, and I’m hearing that from a lot of alumni who have contacted me about the election. They’re turned off by it. There are simply too many important issues facing Penn State that demand the attention of a trustee. If you’re focused on one issue, like these ads clearly are, I think you’re doing a disservice to Penn State.
“I did receive a text message from Scott Paterno. In it, he suggested I not run for re-election and indicated his text message wasn’t a threat, but it’s hard not to see it that way. That’s disappointing, but I certainly can understand Scott’s frustration. I truly can. I think Scott means well, but I am not going to pay attention to threats and negative attacks. We have serious issues at Penn State that require our attention. That’s where my focus is. We owe that to 96,000 students and their families who put their trust and faith in Penn State.
“The great thing about this process is that alumni have a say in the election of nine seats on the Board. Only two others in the Big 10 elect alumni (Indiana, Purdue) but only allow for three slots. None of Pennsylvania’s other state-related universities (Pitt, Temple, Lincoln) provide for this opportunity. Whether they vote for me or not, I am proud that our alumni are passionate and want to participate in the governance of their university. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future, but I think we can all agree: Penn State is a world-class university, and that will never change.”
Suhey added that he believes he’s never referred to himself as a bridge to the Paterno family and says he did not receive a voicemail from Scott Paterno.
Stephanie Deviney’s road to the board was one that featured a couple close calls. Wanting to give back to the university after she graduated from the Dickinson School of Law more than a decade prior, Deviney ran for a spot on the board in 2009. She came in fourth out of a group of 12 that year, beating all other non-incumbents in the field. She maintained her interest in the board and ran again in 2010, narrowly finishing third and earning a three-year term on the Penn State Board of Trustees.
This spring, Deviney finds her herself running for another term on the board. One thing in particular, though, has drastically changed since those those 2009 and 2010 elections.
“Campaigning during those years was certainly different,” Deviney wrote in one of her blog posts earlier this month.
Contradictory to the beliefs of PS4RS, Deviney does think the recently-raised billboard on Beaver Avenue is “negative”.
“Perhaps our university was fortunate enough to steer clear of the tactics utilized in mainstream elections for a long time. From the looks of it, those days are over,” she said in another blog post. “It is the change from endorsing a candidate to denouncing another candidate that I consider it to be ‘negative’.”
Deviney, however, said she refuses to engage in or discuss negative advertising, as she believes the arguably vitriolic ads aren’t fit for any election, Penn State or elsewhere.
“As Penn Staters, I think we’re better than that,” Deviney said in an email. “This campaign should be about the many issues facing Penn State and how candidates will address those challenges. That’s where I will focus my campaign.”
Deviney, now sitting next to Keith Masser as vice-chair, added that while alumni and certain groups launch “attacks” and focus on one issue, she plans to continue serving the constituents of her alma mater.
“My fiduciary obligation is to the university as a whole – not to any one person, department, or college,” she said. “Penn State is first and foremost a premier academic institution charged with educating 96,000 students. Penn State is, and will continue to be, a world-class research institution committed to the highest standards of personal and academic excellence.”
In a sitdown interview with the Centre Daily Times earlier this month, Deviney insisted she and many other board members realize that firing Joe Paterno (or, “retiring him three weeks early”) over a phone call wasn’t the best choice.
“Joseph Paterno was a loyal employee to Penn State for 61 years, but he was much more than that to the Penn State community,” she said. “He was an educator, leader, mentor, and philanthropist.”
“Although at the time we truly felt there was no better alternative, delivering the message to him by phone was a mistake that we all acknowledge and regret,” she added. “We have apologized for this multiple times, but I certainly understand that there are those who will never forgive us. We can only learn from this painful chapter and work harder to fulfill our fiduciary obligation to the entire university community and its 96,000 students.”
In an attempt to communicate with alumni on a seemingly innumerable amount of issues, Deviney has established her own website and responds to questions on her aforementioned Facebook page. She has written posts on why she wasn’t present at the May 2011 board meeting, where Sandusky was reportedly briefly discussed, the NCAA sanctions, and the Freeh report, all while dissolving the occasional rumor or two.
“I am proud of the fact that I give people in the Penn State community, whether they are supporters or not, an opportunity to interact with me and each other. As a trustee, I want to hear from everyone,” Deviney stated. “Bottom line, if people want to attack me based on one issue and not my entire body of work and service to Penn State, that’s certainly their prerogative. I do not take it personally. But I’m going to continue to work hard and do everything I can to serve this university.”
While Deviney admits that the last 16 months have been “challenging” as a trustee, she mentioned several positives, such as the increase in endowments, steady alumni donations, and rising admission rates, saying it’s an “exciting time to be part of the Penn State community.”
“[As vice-chair] my focus will be on returning to the positive aspects of Penn State, to communicate with all of our constituents, and to implement the governance changes that will make us a better Board, and in turn a better university,” she said.
Keys to the Board
While in the midst of its own election process, PS4RS has been growing at an increasingly rapid pace. Since the debut of its billboard and newspaper ad campaigns three weeks ago, PS4RS has added nearly 3,000 members motivated by these actions and in part by perceived missteps of the BOT over time.
“Our biggest membership driver has been the board [members] themselves,” Schmidt said. “Every time they make a gaffe, whether it’s accepting the Freeh report, NCAA sanctions, refusing to fill [Steve] Garban’s empty seat, taking the statue down, even [last] week when people were watching how unprepared they were at the senate hearings, that’s when we’re watching our membership spike.
Last spring, 101,308 votes were cast in total. Among the top five finalists, were three PS4RS-endorsed candidates; Anthony Lubrano (2nd, 10,096 votes), Barbara Doran (4th, 4,040 votes), and Mark Connolly (5th, 2,967 votes). The aforementioned group garnered a total of more than 17,000 votes in the election — certainly a respectable showing from a newly-formed alumni network.
The reality is difficult to ignore: PS4RS holds significant influence next month’s election.
Fast forward a year and PS4RS’s membership has doubled. The grassroots alumni group now touts almost 18,000 members worldwide and hopes to send in reinforcements to relieve previously-endorsed Lubrano. With the lack of a big-name candidate and more than 45,000 votes at its disposal this spring, PS4RS might very well hold the keys to this election.
“Last year was really uncharted territory for us,” Schmidt said. “This year, we’ve had a lot of time to prepare, improve, and grow, and we’re definitely hoping to make an impact.”
So, what does that mean for Suhey and Deviney?
A look back at last year’s incumbent trustee Anne Riley, who received only a meager 1,883 votes, could provide some indication. Regardless, more than fractured friendships, Facebook pages, and public comments at board meetings, the ballots cast from their peers next month will decide the fate of the incumbents. Until then, Paul Suhey and Stephanie Deviney will continue to deal with stiff opposition.
“We are unified in unseating the incumbents,” said Schmidt. “That is our number one goal.”
Correction: Regarding Stephanie Deviney’s official Facebook page, the original post read “many of the remarks she makes tend to be on the hostile side.” The post now reads “many of the remarks on the page tend to be on the hostile side” as Deviney typically engages her commenters in a polite and civil fashion. We apologize for the mischaracterization.