Embattled Penn State president had admirable record

Graham B. Spanier
Graham B. Spanier
Posted: November 10, 2011

Less than a week ago, Graham B. Spanier was in line to become the second-longest-serving president in Pennsylvania State University's 156-year history.

Bolstered by healthy fund-raising, enrollment growth, and an array of new programs and initiatives - all on top of one of the nation's seemingly most pristine and successful football programs - Penn State appeared to be stronger than ever under Spanier's leadership. He was supposed to be feted Wednesday at the 35th annual Renaissance Fund dinner.

But because of a child-abuse scandal during his watch, Spanier was unceremoniously removed Wednesday night as leader of the 96,000-student, 24-campus university.

During Spanier's more than 16 years in office, Penn State has undergone a transformation. It started an online "world campus," created an honors college that has attracted some of the state's best students, and opened the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

In 2000, the university completed a merger with the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, and in January 2009 opened a $60 million law school on Penn State's main campus. The building complements the law school, which underwent a $50 million renovation and expansion.

Penn State also started an international affairs school, a cancer institute, and an arboretum, and a children's hospital is to open next year. Scholarships and research expenditures have grown substantially, and $3 billion in philanthropic donations has poured into the university, according to Spanier's biography on the university's website.

"He has been a very popular president," said Dennis Heitzmann, senior director at the university's Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. "There has been a lot of change for the better at Penn State throughout his tenure here."

Spanier found himself and the university in the crosshairs last budget season when Gov. Corbett's administration targeted Penn State for major cuts. But the president's relationship with the board of trustees seemed solid.

In June 2010, the board extended Spanier's contract until 2015, to give him 20 years at the helm.

Board president Steve Garban said at the time, "Graham has led us through so many exciting positive changes and pushed for Penn State to be the best at every level."

Spanier was among the highest-paid public college or university presidents in the nation. His total compensation was $800,592 in fiscal 2010, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Born in South Africa - where his father fled from Nazi Germany - Spanier moved with his parents to Chicago. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Iowa State University and his doctorate from Northwestern University.

Spanier came to Penn State in 1973. For nine years, he served on the faculty and in three administrative positions in the College of Health and Human Development. From 1982 to 1995, Spanier worked at other colleges, serving as administrator at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and at Oregon State University, and then as chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then he returned to Penn State as president.

Spanier is a marriage and family therapist by training and a family sociologist, which caused some observers to wonder how he is coping with the revelations of the grand jury report that young boys were being raped by a former coach on the campus.

Spanier himself suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father, something he rarely talks about publicly.

In a 1989 speech, later published by the Journal of Marriage and Family, Spanier - then vice president and provost at Oregon State - recounted his early life.

Of his father, he said: "His marriage was dismal, his family life was decidedly unhappy, and his abusive behavior toward his wife and children, tolerated in the 1950s, would have resulted in legal intervention today."

Despite such behavior, Spanier said, "a strong commitment to family stability was instilled among his three children in spite of their daily exposure to family violence, fear of their father, and sometimes hunger."

Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, recalls sitting in the audience and hearing Spanier's personal disclosure.

"I thought it was really courageous," said Gelles, who has known Spanier since 1972. "I thought even more of Graham after that."

Balancing his serious side, Spanier at times donned the Nittany Lion uniform. A racquetball player and magician, he has shown his taste for adventure by running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He also plays the washboard with the Deacons of Dixieland.

His wife, Sandra, is an English professor at Penn State, and both of their sons are Penn State graduates.

As Spanier's departure appeared increasingly likely, there was shock among the higher education world, where he was highly regarded among peers.

"The facts are so stunning and so unfortunate," said Barmak Nassirian, an administrator with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But "the responsibility has to be taken all the way up the food chain, and that's what seems to be happening."

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

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