Gavin Keirans, a Somerton native and 2010 Penn State graduate, is gearing up for a run for a seat on the university’s Board of Trustees.
“It’s something I always wanted to come back and do,” he said. “I love Penn State.”
Keirans, 25, grew up on Lindsay Street and attended St. Joseph’s Prep before enrolling at Penn State, where he served two terms as president of the University Park Undergraduate Association.
As a youth, he and his grandmom, Frances Larkin, of Mayfair, would discuss Nittany Lions football.
“We always talked after each Penn State game,” he said. “She loved Joe Paterno through and through.”
Races for the Board of Trustees used to be ho-hum affairs, but that all changed when the board fired the legendary Paterno in November 2011.
The firing came in the wake of allegations that former longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had molested boys, and Paterno was faulted by some for not telling the police about an allegation. Paterno, 84, was in his 46th season as coach and announced that he would retire at the end of the 2011 season. Nonetheless, the board fired him and university president Graham Spanier. Paterno received the news unceremoniously in a telephone call.
The coach, who never faced criminal charges, died of lung cancer in January 2012. Since then, the races for board seats have attracted record numbers of candidates and voters. Newcomers won all six seats up for grabs in the last two elections. The three incumbents who sought additional terms were defeated soundly.
The leading organization calling for board reform is Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, and Keirans is actively seeking its endorsement.
More than 30 people, including incumbent Joel Myers, will be running for three seats. Incumbents Jesse Arnelle and Marianne Alexander have not indicated whether they will run again.
First, Keirans had to secure 50 nominations by the Feb. 25 deadline. He easily surpassed that figure.
PS4RS, as it is known, will identify six preferred candidates on March 1, and the public will get to vote for their favorites in an online survey March 10-14. The group will announce its coveted endorsements before the official voting begins on April 10.
“I think I’ve got a good shot,” Keirans said of the endorsement. “Our objectives align pretty closely.”
Keirans lives in Old City and works as a strategy consulting manager for Accenture, a sales and marketing firm. The job requires some travel.
Now that his professional life is going well, he wants to use his existing connections with trustees, university administrators and State College officials to be a force on the board.
“It’s the right time to go for it,” he said. “I think I bring a lot to the table.”
The Board of Trustees will announce the three winners at its May 9 meeting.
Almost 34,000 ballots were cast in last year’s election, and Keirans believes candidates this year will need 15,000 votes to win.
Among the other contenders are wealthy former Sallie Mae CEO Al Lord and former state Sen. Bob Jubelirer.
Keirans promised he won’t be “just another trustee.” In fact, he is spending the week at the university, meeting with university leaders and opinion-shapers.
“I think I’d be extremely active and on the pulse of what’s going on,” he said.
On Monday, Penn State announced the hiring of Eric Barron as its 18th president. He will leave his post as president at Florida State to come to Happy Valley.
Barron will replace Rodney Erickson, who took over for Spanier on an interim basis.
Keirans knew Erickson when he was the university’s executive vice president and provost, and hopes the new president will be an active one.
“Penn State needs a president with energy and who will dive into the community to work with students, alumni and faculty leaders,” he said.
Keirans sees Penn State’s reputation on the mend following the Sandusky scandal. The former assistant coach, 70, was convicted of sexual abuse and is serving a long prison term.
Applications to enroll at Penn State had dropped after the scandal broke, but are now approaching what Keirans calls “pre-persecution” levels.
The NCAA leveled crippling sanctions against Penn State and the football program. There was a fine of $60 million, a reduction in football scholarships and a ban on bowl games for four years. The Lions had to forfeit all victories from 1998 to 2011. And players were allowed to transfer without having to sit out a year.
“The NCAA sanctions were unprecedented and well over the top. They were worse than an SMU-type death penalty,” Keirans said, referring to the NCAA’s canceling of Southern Methodist University’s 1987 football season for violations that included players getting paid.
Keirans said excellent recruiting and coaching the last two years by Bill O’Brien, who recently left to become coach of the Houston Texans, kept the Lions afloat. Penn State can take pride in being a leading research institution and home of Nobel Prize winners, Keirans said, adding that the football program is also key to alumni pride.
“Football is not the only thing that matters, but it drives a lot of economic upside,” he said.
In a 2008 Times article, after winning his first UPUA race, Keirans supported a contract extension for Paterno, noting that he was about a lot more than winning football games. He said at the time, “He’s the image of Penn State. If the school loses him, it will take a hit in fundraising.”
While university officials ordered the removal of a Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium, they have recognized his legacy in other ways.
“They kept the name of the library. I think that was a positive,” Keirans said of Paterno Library, which was built thanks to several million dollars in donations by the football coach and his wife Sue.
Keirans, whose sister Taylor graduated from Penn State last May, founded the nonprofit Philadelphia Catholic League Alumni Corps in 2011. He’s organized fellow local Catholic high school graduates to perform service leadership projects such as sprucing up Resurrection of Our Lord Elementary School in Rhawnhurst and cleaning up Lawncrest Recreation Center for a Veterans Day ceremony.
Add in his two years as a student leader at Penn State and a successful start to his business career, and Keirans is ready to help his alma mater again as a member of the Board of Trustees.
His “Plan for Penn State” can be found at gavinkeirans.com
“I have two years experience as president,” he said of his undergraduate days. “I would be hands-on, getting involved in the nitty gritty to better the university.” ••