Graham Spanier: PSU's other tarnished legacy
Penn State President Graham Spanier, left, talks with Coach Joe Paterno before a football game against Iowa in October in Beaver Stadium.
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Graham Spanier, one of the most prominent college presidents in America who today is the center of a firestorm, has combined button-down tradition with the sort of moxie that led him to run with the bulls in Spain.
A sociologist and family therapist by training, Mr. Spanier has used his pulpit as Penn State University president to weigh in on national issues from campus drinking and illegal music downloading to eroding public support of higher education.
Yet for all the stature he has brought Penn State, the leader who is comfortable enough to sit in as the school's Nittany Lion mascot also has given something else just as important to campus.
"We've had a lot of stability under him," said Jean Landa Pytel, a colleague and immediate past chair of the university's Faculty Senate.
Now, though, that stability is in tatters amid the worst scandal in the university's modern history. The arrest of former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on child sexual assault charges, followed quickly by perjury charges against two of Mr. Spanier's top administrators, has jolted a college town so bucolic it long has carried the nickname Happy Valley.
The chair of the school's board of trustees says Mr. Spanier's job will not be on the agenda as the board meets Thursday and Friday, but the two-day gathering is set amid growing criticism of the president and calls in some quarters for his resignation.
Adding to the swirl of uncertainty were two abrupt announcements Tuesday: the sudden cancellation of football coach Joe Paterno's regular news conference and a decision by Mr. Spanier to postpone a planned dinner Wednesday, at which he and his wife Sandra, a professor of English on campus, were to be the honorees.
For more than 16 years, Mr. Spanier, 63, has led the school with 96,000 students, one of the nation's largest research universities with two-dozen campuses and one octogenarian football coach whose name is synonymous with Penn State. Mr. Spanier's tenure is about double the national average for a sitting college president.
Ms. Pytel, an associate professor of engineering science and mechanics and an assistant dean, counts herself among those who support Mr. Spanier. She's sickened by the anonymous emails that have popped into her inbox this week calling for the firing of Mr. Spanier and others.
Ms. Pytel said some of the email may have less to do with the case itself than with those predisposed to dislike Penn State.
"I think there are some people who are quite happy that Penn State has this awful thing happening," she said. "We are big and we are proud. We have a lot of loyal students. Somehow it tends to irk some people."
Ms. Pytel said she knows Mr. Spanier as a man deeply protective of the university's quality and reputation, and she surmises that "to have Penn State connected somehow to such a terrible thing is eating him up, probably. It's killing him."
In public, Mr. Spanier has never been shy about extolling what he calls the demand for a Penn State education, noting over the years that more high school students ask that their SAT scores be sent to Penn State than to any other university. He can be a blunt defender against perceived attacks.
In March, one day after Gov. Tom Corbett proposed cutting the state appropriation of Penn State and other public universities in half, Mr. Spanier took to a podium and described it as a mistake of historic proportion.
"Abraham Lincoln is perhaps weeping today, wondering if a single budget proposal might undo the legacy he created," said Mr. Spanier, invoking the president who signed into law the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which paved the way for land grant universities such as Penn State.
The current crisis Mr. Spanier and the university now face is so dire it has drawn comparisons to the sex abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church.
After Mr. Sandusky's arrest, State Attorney General Linda Kelly criticized Penn State for not notifying police in 2002 after a graduate assistant reported seeing Mr. Sandusky sexually assault a boy in a shower of a campus locker room.
According to a grand jury report made public Saturday, the graduate assistant notified Mr. Paterno, who in turn notified Tim Curley, the university's athletic director, and Gary Schultz, senior vice president for finance and business.
Mr. Curley testified to the grand jury that he told Mr. Spanier of the information he received from the assistant and subsequent steps that were taken, including forbidding Mr. Sandusky from bringing onto campus boys from The Second Mile, a program for at-risk youth.
The grand jury report states: "Spanier testified to his approval of the approach taken by Curley," though Mr. Spanier, in his grand jury testimony, denied the incident was described to him as something sexual.
But despite the denial, Mr. Spanier and other top officials are being hounded by questions about what top administrators knew about the allegations and why police were not notified.
Responding to questions at a news conference on Monday to discuss the grand jury's findings, Ms. Kelly said Mr. Paterno had been cooperative with prosecutors and was not a target of the ongoing investigation. When asked about Mr. Spanier, however, she declined to absolve him the way she did Mr. Paterno.
"All I can say is, again, I'm limited to what's contained in the presentment, and that this is an ongoing investigation," Ms. Kelly said.
Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz turned themselves in Monday and were charged with perjury.
Mr. Spanier is a noted researcher and author who is the founding editor of the Journal of Family Issues. He is a family sociologist as well as a demographer and a marriage and family therapist.
Predisposed to working long hours, he is known on campus for sending out emails into the evening and beyond. Those who have watched him over the years note that he was particularly at ease mingling with students.
Mr. Spanier does not recoil from his reputation as an unconventional university president. In fact, the very description is incorporated into his official Penn State biography, along with a mention that he is a magician, holds a commercial pilot's license and plays washboard for the Deacons of Dixieland band.
At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he was chancellor for five years before being named Penn State president, Mr. Spanier allowed himself to be scooped up as an item for a fraternity scavenger hunt.
But few presidential expeditions seem as bodacious as his encounter in 2001 with the bulls.
The leader of the state's largest university -- at the time just shy of his 53rd birthday -- spent part of his summer vacation that year in Pamplona, Spain, and he wound up joining a tradition shared by macho Spaniards and assorted revelers.
"It was a rush," he recalled at the time. "Literally and figuratively."
Mr. Spanier was in Spain with his wife, who is a Hemingway scholar. She led a Penn State alumni tour through Europe that traced the steps of the famous author.
"I had been studying the nuances of the run for some time and decided to do it for the cultural experience," Mr. Spanier said. "After carefully planning my strategy to avoid being trampled or gored, and after walking the course, examining the twists and turns, the bulls' tendencies and deciding where I needed to be in relation to the timing of the bulls, I did it."
Mr. Spanier was born in 1948 in South Africa, the country to which his father fled to escape the Holocaust, according to a profile in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1995.
Within a year of his birth, as apartheid came to remind his father of Nazism, the family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where Mr. Spanier's father earned a living unloading trucks.
Mr. Spanier grew up poor, but advanced himself, working multiple jobs, earning 27 college credits while still in high school, and paying his own way through Iowa State University, where he earned an undergraduate degree and master's degree.
The man who once envisioned himself as a mathematics major ultimately went on to earn a doctoral degree in sociology from Northwestern University in 1973.
That same year, the 24-year-old came to Penn State as an assistant professor of human development and sociology and later became an associate dean before leaving for the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he was vice provost for undergraduate studies. Four years later, he became provost and vice president for academic affairs at Oregon State University. He remained there until his appointment in Nebraska
In public remarks, Mr. Spanier has displayed a strong moral sense.
In a State of the University address the year after he became Penn State's president, Mr. Spanier spoke of issues ranging from alcohol abuse to state funding to the need to better prepare students for the world.
He said he's often asked what the biggest problem is in higher education.
"My inquisitors expect me to speak about budgets, information technology, federal research policy or public opinion," he said. "My answer may surprise you.
"The most fundamental problem facing colleges and universities throughout America today is the challenge of developing character, conscience, citizenship, tolerance and social responsibility in a society that sometimes gives the impression that such virtues are optional."
First Published November 9, 2011 12:55 am