Under Penn State's policy, professors can be stripped of tenure for several reasons, including incompetence, excessive absenteeism, moral turpitude, or grave misconduct.
"I think it's very hard to separate your actions as a president from who you are as a faculty member," said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a strong proponent of tenure.
Tenure ensures that professors have academic freedom and the freedom to speak out, she said. "It does not allow you to protect wrongdoers."
Spanier is being investigated by the state Attorney General's Office for his role in the Sandusky case, according to knowledgeable sources. The former assistant football coach now faces spending the rest of his life in jail after his conviction on charges of abusing young boys.
Last week, a report highly critical of the university issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh accused Spanier, former head football coach Joe Paterno, and two other senior university officials of covering up Sandusky's attacks, allowing him to victimize other boys.
In making his case, Freeh cited e-mails between Spanier and the two administrators - Tim Curley, the former athletic director; and Gary Schultz, former senior vice president, both now under indictment for perjury.
Given Sandusky's conviction and the Freeh report, Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, predicted Penn State would rather negotiate with Spanier for his resignation than revoke his tenure.
"I don't think they're going to want to fight that battle with everything else that's going on," said Heller, who was director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State for 10 years until he left in January.
The tenure-review process can include presenting the case before a standing joint committee made up of three tenured faculty members and two representatives appointed by the administration. That's if the matter can't be resolved between administrators and the accused professor in initial meetings where the professor can defend himself or herself.
"The Freeh report is very damaging, but in this country, people are allowed to defend themselves before we make a judgment," said Larry Cata Backer, head of Penn State's faculty senate. "We want to make sure the integrity of the process remains untouched."
The committee's recommendation would go to university president Rodney Erickson for a final decision. Erickson said on Tuesday the university would wait "to see what is going to transpire with any future legal actions" before initiating a tenure-review process.
In one legal development Wednesday, Spanier dropped his lawsuit to obtain copies of the e-mails Freeh revealed before the report was released.
Spanier spent 16 years as the university's president. After losing that job, he went on sabbatical and is due to return in the spring. He had been one of the highest-paid public college presidents in the country, earning more than $1 million in fiscal year 2011, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Before the scandal, Spanier had also been one of the most highly regarded college presidents in the country. Under his leadership, the university 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, it 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.
It's not clear whether Spanier wants to return to his Penn State post, and his lawyer, Peter Vaira, declined to comment on his client's intentions.
Spanier's wife, Sandra, is an English professor at the university, and both of the couple's sons are Penn State graduates.
Vaira said Spanier currently works in "security-related roles . . . that are confidential and require top-secret clearance."
According to Vaira, Spanier previously held high-level security clearance for several roles, including his oversight of the Applied Research Laboratory, as chair of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, and as a member of the National Counterintelligence Working Group.
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.
Inquirer staff writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.
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