Former PSU head Spanier was leading researcher on sex, family issues

Graham Spanier. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press, File)
Graham Spanier. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press, File)
Posted: August 24, 2012

As a young researcher, the man who would rise to president of Pennsylvania State University and then fall from grace over his handling of the Jerry Sandusky affair used his academic skills to investigate two of the emerging sociological issues of the era: the sexual revolution and the changing American family.

Graham B. Spanier showed considerable curiosity about sex, writing papers on several varieties of it, premarital, extramarital and - this one has attracted the attention of conservative bloggers - swinging or, as he and his co-author called it in the early 1970s, mate swapping. His primary focus, though, was on what broke marriages apart, what kept them together, and how people adjusted to divorce and remarriage.

Fellow researchers of his generation said that he was in the vanguard of those studying sexual change and that he brought exceptional mathematical and demographic skills to his field, sociology. He also developed the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, which was widely used to measure how people adjusted to relationships.

By 1990, administrative duties had taken precedence, and he had stopped producing original research. His published work instead focused on the issues that dominate the lives of college leaders. He wrote often of his desire to "humanize the university" and, in particular, of the need to make work rules more family-friendly. He also wrote of the need for administrators to maintain their ethical standards in words that, with benefit of hindsight, may seen ironic now.

In a 1990 essay on sociology and academic leadership for the journal of the Pacific Sociological Association, he warned prospective administrators to "be prepared to get blamed for things that aren't your fault." He also said people should not lead if they are afraid of losing their jobs.

"Administrators who are fearful of the consequences of a controversial or difficult decision often make the choice that is not in the best interests of the institution," he wrote. "Realism and compromise find their way into most tough situations, but above all, be committed to integrity and principle."

Three men who worked with Spanier during his years as a researcher said it was hard to believe that he would not take tough action against a sexual predator. "It doesn't resonate with anything I remember about him," said Charles Cole, a former sociology professor at Denison University in Ohio who was a graduate student with Spanier and wrote several papers with him.

Richard Lerner, who directs the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University in Massachusetts and also has worked with Spanier, says he thinks his friend has been treated unfairly. "I cannot believe that Graham Spanier knew of any child being at harm and . . . stood by," he said. "His whole life has been about doing whatever he could to enhance children."

Lerner said he had read all of the Freeh report and found it lacking. It would not be selected for scholarly publication, he said, because of the "poor connection between the facts and the conclusions."

Spanier has not studied child sexual or physical abuse. In a 1989 paper, though, he wrote about his own troubled background, which included a physically abusive father. He marveled that he had somehow emerged nonetheless with an abiding respect for the family as an institution. Clearly, thousands of children were damaged by their dysfunctional families, but Spanier wondered how some of them came through it with a strong desire to make the families they created work.

"Why do many children, like me, experience abuse, disruption, poverty, or hunger, yet somehow, against great odds, reach adulthood with the notion that family life can be rewarding?" he asked.

In that article, Spanier wrote that his father, Fritz Otto Spanier, had fled to South Africa from Nazi Germany at the age of 15. He married a woman from Johannesburg, but, dismayed by apartheid, soon moved to Chicago with her and their infant son. Graham Spanier said his father died at the age of 64, sick and very unhappy.

"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," Spanier wrote.

Still, his father's commitment to his marriage and family had a positive effect on the son. "Despite the despair, fear, and hate in his home," the younger Spanier wrote, "he managed to remain married for 37 years; moreover, 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."

Frank Furstenberg, a well-known University of Pennsylvania sociologist who has worked with Spanier, called him a "solid, very capable scholar" and a "man of considerable integrity."

Spanier's interest in sexual behavior and relationships was natural for the times. "It was a time when the institution of marriage was beginning to buckle, and he quite appropriately was focusing on what keeps marriages together," Furstenberg said. "He was really interested in the glue of marriage."

Spanier's own life was conventional. "He was one of the straightest and most un-'70's persons that I ever met," Furstenberg said.

"I think I have seen him once have part of a beer," Lerner said. "I've never heard him say a four-letter word."

Spanier and Cole both married 41 years ago - Cole in June and Spanier in September - and both have stayed married, Cole said.

The mate-swapping studies grew out of a class on courtship and marriage that Cole and Spanier taught while in graduate school at Iowa State University, Cole said. "We kept getting questions from our students about mate swapping, which we had no knowledge of," he said.

They decided to investigate. They surveyed 579 married adults in Ames, Iowa, about swinging and other aspects of their relationships. What resulted was a fairly dry description of the results, which found that fewer than 2 percent of the Ames sample had tried mate swapping, although a few more were willing to admit they found the idea intriguing.

The two researchers included two sentences that critics have cited as proof that Spanier is flawed: "We choose to view deviant behavior simply as behavior that some value and others consider wrong. An individual's behavior becomes deviant only when others define it as deviant."

Cole said they were simply acknowledging that different cultures have different behavioral rules.

 Spanier's later written work became more philosophical and reveals a man increasingly aware of the politics and emotional and ethical challenges inherent in leadership.

He wrote more than once about keeping athletics in proper perspective. In a diary entry published in 2000 in the Journal of College and Character, he wrote: "While a winning team generates valuable goodwill for a college or university, particularly in a highly visible sport such as men's basketball, putting athletic success over academic integrity defeats the reason for our existence."

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or

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