Spanier case changes the way universities cope with scandal
November 5, 2012 10:00 AM
Mark Stehle/Associated Press
Former Penn State University President Graham Spanier
By Bill Schackner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some liken it to a Greek tragedy, a prominent university president's fall from grace that may be without parallel in American higher education.
When he appears before a judge Wednesday for arraignment on charges including perjury, former Penn State University president Graham Spanier will have reached a new and grim milestone in a predicament that would have seemed unimaginable only months ago.
Its shocking nature is owed in part to the allegation itself: that he took part in a conspiracy to cover up the actions of a child molester on campus. But the shock also reflects how much the case stands in stark contrast to what Mr. Spanier represented -- an enormously successful, long-tenured leader of an elite research university, a man who was one of the nation's most prominent college presidents.
Mr. Spanier, 64, and his attorneys maintain his innocence. They say the indictment on state charges announced Thursday in Harrisburg was politically motivated.
"He was a brilliant president. I know the man. He was terrific," said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a professor and president emeritus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Everyone in America would return his call. University presidents, corporate chief executives, U.S. senators.
"He would have left a hell of a legacy."
But now, Mr. Spanier's hand in boosting Penn State's size and stature, and his imprint on national issues from Internet music piracy and campus drinking to support for public higher education, all have been eclipsed by his connection to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Mr. Spanier, president for more than 16 years, was forced to resign Nov. 9, the same day Penn State announced it had fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who died Jan. 22 of lung cancer.
Both men had faced withering criticism over Penn State's failure to report to law enforcement for a decade the sexual assault in 2001 of a boy in a campus shower by Sandusky, a retired Penn Sate assistant football coach. Sandusky, 68, last month began serving a 30- to 60-year prison term for sexually assaulting 10 boys over 15 years, including some on campus.
On Thursday, Mr. Spanier became the third Penn State official charged in the case. In announcing the indictment, state Attorney General Linda Kelly said the former president and two subordinates already facing charges took part in a "conspiracy of silence" that included not just failing to alert law enforcement when they were told of Mr. Sandusky's actions but also lying to a state grand jury about their knowledge of the incidents and hiding emails and other documents from prosecutors.
In addition to perjury, the eight criminal counts against Mr. Spanier include endangering the welfare of children, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and failure to report suspected child abuse.
Within hours of the attorney general's news conference, Penn State said Mr. Spanier, who remains a tenured professor there, had been placed on leave.
Even if the charges he now faces had not included five felonies, Mr. Spanier's situation would still be highly unusual, experts say.
"It is very rare for a university president to be indicted for any reason. I can't, off the top of my head, think of anything comparable to this in recent history," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education.
But Mr. Hartle said he believes the Sandusky case is itself unparalleled in American higher education, noting that a scandal grave enough to cost a university president his job is far more likely to involve some administrative issue on campus.
And unlike scandals involving a president's actions away from the job, such as a drunken-driving arrest, the charges in this case are tied directly to actions Mr. Spanier is alleged to have taken as president of the 96,000-student university.
"There have been some cases where presidents were accused of some inappropriate expenditures and sometimes driven out of office on that basis, but a criminal charge? I can't think of a parallel," said Jon Fuller, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
He said even if the charges are proven in court, it's not as if anyone believes Mr. Spanier set out to make life easier for pedophiles. Rather, a man who Mr. Fuller said could be "ruthless" in advancing his institution even if charming face-to-face, was more likely doing what he felt would protect Penn State, unaware that a misstep made among the blur of high-pressure decisions he made as president would years later become his undoing.
"He certainly didn't set out to do anything evil, so there is an element of a Greek tragedy -- the unintended flaw, the unintended misstep that now leads to the destruction of what was kind of a golden career in higher education," he said.
"I am convinced he thought -- erroneously, obviously and tragically -- that he was doing the best thing for the university," Mr. Trachtenberg said.
Even in retirement, Mr. Spanier seemed destined to remain a visible force in higher education, serving on boards, as a consultant and perhaps as acting head of a campus. But he could now face a sharply different future, Mr. Fuller said.
"It will never go away," he said. "The best he can hope for at this point is legal exoneration, and his best friends may accept that in personal terms, but there will never be any question of how he will be perceived by most people who hear his name."
That notion is hard to square with a presidency marked by development of a successful online campus, a merger that brought a law school building to Penn State's main campus, and the raising of hundreds of millions of dollars for other endeavors. Mr. Spanier is still seen smiling on Penn State's website in a photo related to Schreyer Honors College, established in 1997 with a $30 million gift to the university.
Mr. Spanier's lawyers did not comment for this story. A statement issued by them Thursday accused Gov. Tom Corbett, a Penn State trustee who was state attorney general when the Sandusky investigation began, of using the charges "to divert attention away from the fact that he failed to warn the Penn State community" about the suspicions related to Sandusky.
The governor has defended his actions as appropriate.
Mr. Trachtenberg, an author whose book on failed college presidencies is due out this spring, said if the alleged cover-up is true it would be unforgiveable. Either way, he said, the episode is affecting the way institutions look at decision-making and whistle-blower cases. "Every college president will have a little bit of a sense of 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "