Analysts wonder whether Penn State president can continue

Penn State's Graham Spanier (front) has drawn criticism for standing by two university officials.
Penn State's Graham Spanier (front) has drawn criticism for standing by two university officials. (CHLOE ELMER / Associated Press)
Posted: November 08, 2011

With 16 years at the helm of Pennsylvania State University, Graham B. Spanier is one of the most highly regarded and visible college presidents in the country, but can he survive what has become perhaps the biggest black eye in the flagship university's history?

National higher education experts interviewed Monday said he likely can, but suggested he erred in speaking out so quickly in support of two administrators charged in a grand jury probe for their handling of child- sex-abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

On Sunday morning, Spanier in a statement announced his unconditional support of senior vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley, who have both been charged with lying to a grand jury in the case.

Late that night, however, after a private meeting of the trustees, both men stepped down.

"The statement did strike me as overly confident and perhaps a bit premature," said Barmak Nassirian, an administrator with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. "I figured he must know what he's doing and there must be a reason why he is so unconditionally supportive. "

Some experts have a hard time believing Spanier - a family therapist by training and sensitive to issues such as sexual abuse - would have made such an error.

"He would have very detailed knowledge about these cases and how they need to be handled and why," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

State Attorney General Linda Kelly on Monday said Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was not a target of the continuing investigation, but pointedly declined to say the same about Spanier.

At the center of the probe is Sandusky, charged with sexually abusing boys.

According to the grand jury presentment, Curley informed Spanier of an incident in 2002 involving "inappropriate conduct" between Sandusky and a youth in a campus shower, as reported by a graduate assistant. The graduate assistant told the grand jury he had witnessed Sandusky anally raping the boy, who appeared to be about 10.

Curley, however, testified that the graduate assistant described the incident to him as "horsing around." Spanier testified he was told the same by Curley. Spanier approved a decision to ban Sandusky from bringing children into the football locker room. Law enforcement officials were never notified of the incident.

Spanier, according to the grand jury report, was aware Schultz and Curley did not plan to notify law enforcement or other authorities.

"I am very baffled as to how this did not not fall in the lap of campus police," said Alison Kiss, executive director of Security on Campus Inc., a national campus security group based in Wayne. "That's most concerning, given the age of the victim."

But whether it might cost Spanier his job is unclear.

"There are a lot of things within the system that need to be looked at," Kiss said. "Inevitably, in the role of a president, you cannot have your hand in everything."

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, (R., Pa.) a former U.S. attorney who has been outspoken on campus safety, said he plans to ask the U.S. Department of Education to investigate whether Penn State violated federal law by failing to report and investigate the complaint.

Penn State's failure to act "may well have created the circumstance to allow later violations to occur," he said.

Some higher education experts, however, said any possible missteps in this incident must be weighed against Spanier's positive impact on the 96,000-student university that runs on an annual budget of $4.3 billion.

"This is an extremely successful long-term president," said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University. "The question is if you have a wonderful leader who has done all of these things for the university and over this long period of time has had the support of the faculty and administrators, is this someone you want to give up on?"

Appointed president of Penn State in 1995, Spanier is among the highest-paid public college university presidents in the nation. His total cost of employment was $800,592 in fiscal 2010, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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