Largely fueled by concern over their university's handling of a child sex abuse scandal, dozens of Penn State alumni are vying for a seat on the Board of Trustees in one of the most contested elections in recent memory, perhaps ever.
Nine seats on the 32-member board are filled by alumni, and each year three of those seats are up for election. In the last four years, six to 12 candidates have appeared on the ballot. This year, more than 30 people have expressed interest in running for the three-year, unpaid board seats - candidates must secure 50 alumni signatures to get on the ballot.
A newly formed group, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, which reports more than 3,000 members, has asked candidates to apply through them. They intend to select and support three new candidates for the seats. Two of the three current alumni trustees up for election reportedly said they would not seek another term.
Candidates range in age from early 20s to well past retirement age. Geographically, they span from State College - home to the main campus - to as far away as Wisconsin. There's a retired army colonel, a psychologist, a former journalist turned web programmer, a retired professor, business executives and lawyers, among others.
Former Penn State football player Adam Taliaferro who was paralyzed during a game against Ohio State in 2000 and made a storybook recovery also is seeking a seat. Now a lawyer at Duane Morris in Cherry Hill, he's determined to help the university at one of its lowest points the way it helped him recover from his football career-ending injury, he said.
Anthony Lubrano, who runs his own financial services firm, also wants a seat. A 1982 graduate, Lubrano, of Glenmoore in Chester County, gave the school several million in 2002 for its baseball complex which bears his name and says he is committed to restoring iconic football Coach Joe Paterno to the prominence he deserves.
The motivation for running seems to be singular in one sense.
"At the end of the day, all of us want the same thing. We all want to repair the damage," said 1982 graduate and board candidate Karen Levine Weaver, a drug development project manager for Merck in Rahway, N.J., whose twins are juniors at Penn State.
Last year, only 11,000 alumni voted in the election of new members, though more than 190,000 were eligible, according to Penn State President Rodney Erickson.
"I think there's going to be a sea change," predicted 1988 graduate Maribeth Roman Schmidt, a spokesperson for the responsible stewardship group, whose public relations firm is based in Plymouth Meeting.
It wouldn't surprise Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association.
"I have never seen interest on this level," he said.
Alumni will receive their voting ballots on or before April 10. Ballots typically are counted during spring commencement weekend. New members are seated July 1.
The job of trustees ranges from selecting a university president to setting goals to approving the budget.
Interest is likely to continue to build as a chorus of alumni and some university professors are calling for a separate investigation into how the board handled the unfolding abuse case involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The board's first meeting of the new year is Friday, and a group of alumni plans to turn out and try to question trustees. It's the first public meeting since November, when the board fired Paterno and forced the resignation of President Graham B. Spanier.
Since the scandal broke, alumni have been announcing their candidacy for the board, desperate to shore up their alma mater's image.
For many alumni, Penn State isn't just where they got their degree. It's where their children go to school. It's where they met their spouse. It's where they still go for football weekends.
"I bleed blue and white," said Richard Marshall, 42, a 1992 graduate from Mount Kisco, N.Y., just outside of New York City.
Marshall, head of transformation services for AllianceBerstein, suggests that the university appoint an ombudsman so that employees and others can take their complaints to an independent party. He also said more of the board members should be elected, rather than appointed.
The trustees handled Paterno's removal poorly, he said, but he agrees that the coach probably couldn't continue given the media scrutiny.
Lubrano, 51, is seeking endorsement by the responsible stewardship group. Before the scandal broke, Lubrano knew little about the trustees.
"I couldn't even have told you how many board members there were," he said.
But the way the trustees treated Paterno spurred him to action. He won't rest, he said, until the university apologizes to Paterno.
"I was shocked and dismayed to learn how my school operates," he said.
The responsible stewardship group, which includes alumni, community members, students, parents, and others, has been critical of the board of trustees for firing Paterno before conducting an internal investigation.
"The effort really is to restore and place new people in those positions so there is due process going forward," said Katie Stone, a 2007 graduate from Abington.
Stone said the group distributed more than 60 applications to potential candidates. About 30 had returned those applications as of this week.
Other candidates, such as Weaver, 51, of Franklin Lakes, N.J., plan to run without the support of the group.
Weaver faulted the trustees for reacting to media pressure when they fired Paterno.
"They made rash decisions where people's reputations were ruined and destroyed. Because they're so closely tied to Penn State's reputation, it brought down an entire university. It's going to take many, many years to repair."
She also questions the board's spending practices - student housing needs to be upgraded and expanded, she said. Trustees, she said, are unapproachable.
"They have had more than enough time now to reach out to stakeholders of Penn State to make themselves available to answer questions," she said. "They've chosen to hide behind closed doors."
For Weaver, Penn State has been a passion. She estimates she is on campus 25 times a year. Her parents met and married on graduation day at Penn State. Every room of her home has a touch of Penn State, including cutouts of Paterno and the Nittany lion and a 1995 Rose Bowl football signed by Paterno and every other member of the coaching staff, including Sandusky.
Ben Novak, a former trustee, also is seeking to return. He said on his website that he wants the university to hold a formal convocation "in full academic regalia in order to apologize to Joe and Sue Paterno."
Paterno also was "a very influential person" in Taliaferro's life while he was a football player and after. Paterno visited him every week in the hospital, Taliaferro said.
But he stopped short of criticizing the board for canning the coach, saying he doesn't have all the information.
"On the outside looking in, I wish he would have had a chance to share his side of the story before they took action," he said.
Taliaferro was playing cornerback when he suffered the injury that left him on the field, unable to move. Doctors thought the freshman star player would never walk again. He went on to graduate then got his law degree from Rutgers Camden.
Taliaferro also created a foundation in his name to raise money for victims of spinal cord injuries. In November, Taliaferro, 30, who grew up in Voorhees and now lives in Woolwich Township, was elected to the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders.
Penn State, however, still gives him quite a homecoming: "I got hurt 11 years ago. Even to this day, when I go to Penn State, they treat me fantastic. It's been a great place to me. I just want to lend a helping hand."