Child abuse scandal claims jobs of university president, legendary coach
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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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In five stunning days, a child sex abuse scandal that rocked the state's flagship public university led to the departure Wednesday of Penn State University President Graham Spanier and its legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
At a late night news conference that followed an emergency closed-door session on campus, John Surma, board of trustees vice chairman said Mr. Spanier was no longer president by mutual agreement and that Mr. Paterno had been fired.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Paterno issued a statement saying that he would retire, but not until the end of the football season. But the trustees decided Wednesday night that Mr. Paterno's career should end immediately.
"We thought that because of the difficulties that have engulfed the university, and they are great, that it was necessary for us to make a change and set a course for new leadership," Mr. Surma said.
There was an audible gasp in the room of reporters and students as Mr. Surma announced that Mr. Paterno would be leaving the university.
Both men had faced intensifying criticism over the university's failure to report to law enforcement authorities allegations that former football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a locker room shower of the Lasch football building on campus in 2002.
Rodney Erickson, longtime university provost, will serve as interim president, and Tom Bradley will become the acting head football coach, Mr. Surma said.
Mr. Erickson became executive vice president and provost on July 1, 1999, making him the institution's chief academic officer, according to Penn State's web site. A researcher, he is widely published on geography and economic matters, international trade and economic development policies, the school said. He joined the Penn State faculty in 1977.
Mr. Surma said it was hoped that students will view the change as being in the institution's best interest. However, within minutes of the announcement, some students were openly decrying the move and a crowd of thousands massed outside Old Main and later confronted police a few blocks away where a news van was overturned.
Mr. Spanier, in a statement issued late Wednesday night, said he was honored to have served Penn State for 25 years, including 16 as president. But he acknowledged that it was time for a change in leadership.
"This University is a large and complex institution, and although I have always acted honorably and in the best interests of the University, the buck stops here. In this situation, I believe it is in the best interests of the University to give my successor a clear path for resolving the issues before us.
"I will always value the wonderful relationships that I have developed with the many thousands of Penn Staters, community leaders and members of the higher education community throughout the country. I will continue to serve the University in every way possible and celebrate the greatness of Penn State," the statement said.
The events culminated a day of rapidly unfolding developments in a crisis that since Saturday has led to the arrest of Mr. Sandusky on child sex charges and the arrest of two top Penn State administrators on charges they perjured themselves before a state grand jury and that they failed to notify police of a sexual assault of a minor.
The allegations have shocked the campus, generated expressions of outrage from school trustees and placed Penn State squarely at the center of a national media firestorm.
The drama sent hundreds of students into the streets near campus late on Tuesday night where they protested spontaneously in support of Mr. Paterno under the glare of state and local police clad in riot gear.
Wednesday's events began unfolding in the morning when Mr. Paterno issued a statement saying he would remain until season's end. He then traveled to Lasch, where he broke down during an address to his team.
Later in the day, university officials confirmed that Penn State trustees had called an executive session for Wednesday night and that university leadership -- including Mr. Paterno and Mr. Spanier -- would be on the agenda.
In another development late Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education said it is entering the case. It will investigate whether Penn State failed to comply with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. It also said the Office of Civil Rights will consider whether other investigations are warranted.
The Clery Act, named for a Lehigh University student raped and murdered in 1986, requires that campuses disclose criminal offenses reported each year and, in certain cases, that they issue a timely warning if a reported offenses poses a threat to the campus community.
In its statement, the department noted that Mr. Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing several young boys over several years, on and off campus.
"If it turns out that some people at the school knew of the abuse and did nothing or covered it up, that makes it even worse," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whose agency enforces the act.
"Schools and school officials have a legal and moral responsibility to protect children and young people from violence and abuse," he said.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R- Delaware County, who had asked Mr. Duncan for the investigation, praised the decision, adding, "Had authorities at Penn State reported the allegations to law enforcement and properly disclosed these allegations under the law, perhaps children could have been protected from abuse."
Over the years, crises and fallout from them have been no stranger to major universities nationwide, from a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University that killed 12 people in 1999 and sex allegations, later proved to be false, involving Duke University's lacrosse team in 2006, to a mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.
But the Penn State situation is unprecedented in at least one respect.
"I've been watching higher education for about 35 years. What strikes me in this case is how rapidly this crisis has unfolded and is moving toward a resolution," said Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington D.C.
He said one reason why the scandal spread so quickly was the nature of the allegations, particularly in light of the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Another was the fact that Penn State's football program had a great reputation.
And the relentless tempo of around-the clock news added to the fire.
Reacting to the departures, Molly Corbett Broad, ACE's president, praised Mr. Spanier while expressing hope that the dramatic personnel moves would help heal the university.
"Graham Spanier is a good colleague who is widely admired and respected within the higher education community," she said. "He has nearly single-handedly led Penn State University in its transition from a solid regional institution to a university renowned for its teaching, research and scholarship."
In his 46 years as head coach, the 84-year-old Mr. Paterno has amassed a record as the winningest coach in Division 1A football history, helping to propel the program to elite national status.
Mr. Spanier, now 63, was the youngest Penn State president in four decades when he arrived in 1995 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he had been chancellor.
A sociologist and family therapist by training, Mr. Spanier is regarded as one of the nation's most visible college presidents, in part for speaking out on such national issues such as campus drinking and illegal music downloading.
The events that ultimately led to their departure began Saturday with the arrest of Mr. Sandusky and the release of a grand jury presentment detailing a series of sexual assaults.
At a news conference on Monday, State Attorney General Linda Kelly criticized Penn State administration officials 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 the grand jury report, 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 he founded 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 have been hounded by questions about what top administrators knew about the allegations and why police were not notified.
Responding to questions at the news conference 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.
Asked Wednesday night by reporters why Mr. Curley had not been fired, Mr. Surma replied that the board still had other matters to address.
Officials reacted to the news almost immediately.
Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, said the governor had hoped that Penn State's trustees would act swiftly in response to the scandal.
"Now they need to go about the job of restoring trust and faith in the university for the students, the alumni and the citizens of Pennsylvania, who pay the taxes that support the university," Mr. Harley said.
He said the Mr. Corbett will go to State College Thursday night and will attend a board of trustees meeting on Friday.
Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato, a Penn State graduate, said the board had no choice but to take strong action.
"It's a sad day for Penn State and it was a necessary move,'' he said. "The whole incident ... the description of what happened to that boy, just makes your stomach turn. Penn State's leadership and the board of directors had to take swift action."
First Published November 10, 2011 12:04 am