Report paints former Penn State president Graham B. Spanier as a chief villain in the Sandusky case

Graham B. Spanier (left), former president of Penn State, with Joe Paterno and Gov. Tom Ridge in 2000. Spanier "resisted the board's attempt to have more transparency," the Freeh report says.
Graham B. Spanier (left), former president of Penn State, with Joe Paterno and Gov. Tom Ridge in 2000. Spanier "resisted the board's attempt to have more transparency," the Freeh report says. (PAUL VATHIS / Associated Press)
Posted: July 14, 2012

Once one of the most highly regarded college presidents in the nation, Graham B. Spanier emerged in Thursday's investigative report on Pennsylvania State University as a main villain in what experts said could best be summed up as a complete failure in university leadership.

Spanier knew about allegations of inappropriate behavior by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in 1998 and 2001 but failed to inform the university's board of trustees, according to the exhaustive report prepared by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and his team.

Even when a grand jury was preparing to release its presentment and indict Sandusky on charges that he abused young boys sexually on and off Penn State's campus - and to indict two Penn State administrators on charges of perjury - Spanier was seeking to downplay the case and the amount of information that trustees were told about it, the report says.

The university's 32-member board of trustees, investigators said, also failed by not monitoring its president more closely and asking more penetrating questions when it first learned of a grand jury investigation in spring 2011.

Just days before Sandusky's indictment in November, Spanier told then-board chairman Steve Garban that the university's counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, was going to speak to the state Attorney General's Office to try to convince investigators they had no case.

"Mr. Spanier resisted the board's attempt to have more transparency," the report said. Even when Sandusky and administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz were arrested, "Mr. Spanier was unwilling to give the board any more information about what was going on than what he was providing to the public."

"The goal," the report said, "should be to create a more open and compliant culture, which protects children and not adults who abuse them."

Spanier's attorney, Peter F. Vaira, did not return calls for comment.

While he was dismissed as Penn State's president in November, Spanier, whose academic specialty is family therapy, is a tenured professor of sociology. He is on sabbatical, and in April the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that he was working for "the U.S. government on a special project tied to national-security issues."

In a statement to investigators, Spanier maintained that he was never told that any sexual activity or abuse had occurred.

National groups immediately weighed in, condemning the apparent breakdown in leadership at Pennsylvania's once-immaculate flagship university and oversight by the board.

"It's a complete failure of institutional decision-making and an abdication of responsibility," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president in the division of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a statement calling the case "what happens when boards are rubber stamps for the president."

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, the board's chair, Karen Peetz, and trustee Kenneth Frazier, the board's liaison to the investigation, took responsibility for the board's failure and promised a new way of business going forward.

Frazier acknowledged that the board had a "huge degree of trust" in Spanier and therefore did not probe as deeply as it should have after first hearing of the grand jury investigation.

"In retrospect, frankly, we were not appropriately pushing to get deeper answers," he said.

In the report, investigators said Spanier, who was president for 16 years, "discouraged discussion and dissent," kept board members in the dark on sensitive matters, and "failed in his duties as president."

The Freeh report says the board should have probed more deeply in spring 2011 when it learned of the grand jury investigation.

One trustee, whom the report did not name, is described as asking questions to no avail.

The trustee e-mailed Spanier for a full briefing of the Sandusky case in April 2011 after the Harrisburg Patriot-News wrote about it, the report says.

Spanier told the trustee that grand jury investigations are by law secret and that he would have to check with Baldwin, the university's general counsel, to see how much he could release. The secrecy provisions, however, do not cover witnesses, who can discuss their testimony.

The same trustee e-mailed Spanier again less than two weeks later and said "the university should communicate something about this to its board of trustees."

Spanier's response again downplayed the case.

"I'm not sure it is entirely our place to speak about this when we are only on the periphery of this," Spanier wrote to the trustee via e-mail.

The grand jury presentment naming Sandusky and evidence introduced at his trial made it clear that Penn State was directly involved and that Sandusky attacked several youths on campus.

Board members said Thursday they either did not know or would not disclose the inquisitive trustee's identity.

One trustee speculated that it could be David R. Jones, a retired assistant managing editor of the New York Times, who was "interrogative" and came at matters with "a reporter's approach." Reached by phone, Jones declined to comment.

The report led to renewed calls from angry alumni for the board's resignation. But board members do not intend to resign, Peetz said.

"We believe the stability of the university is important and that we now really can get going on what needs to be done," she said.

Of all those faulted in the report, the board members are the only ones who have not lost their positions as a result of their conduct.

The board's blind faith in Spanier was first shaken after he released a statement about Curley and Schultz when they were charged in November, pledging "unconditional support" for his fellow administrators. A communications staff member said that she thought Spanier's wording was "horrendous" but that he insisted on it, according to the report.


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

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