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No Easy Answers
Penn State board dismisses President Spanier and Coach Joe Paterno, but many still ask how alleged sexual abuse happened on their watch.
NEW YORK -- The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees announced late Wednesday night that President Graham Spanier and the university's famed head football coach, Joe Paterno, would lose their jobs immediately because of a wide-ranging sex-abuse scandal that raised questions about the appropriateness of the university's response.
"The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees and Graham Spanier have decided that, effective immediately, Dr. Spanier is no longer president of the University," the board said in a statement Wednesday. "Additionally, the board determined that it is in the best interest of the University for Joe Paterno to no longer serve as head football coach, effective immediately."
Paterno (seen with Spanier at left, in happier times) had announced earlier in the day that he would retire at the end of the season, saying that in hindsight, he wished he "had done more." But the board’s announcement moved up the timeline, prompting protests by thousands of students in the university's hometown -- protests that, as broadcast to national cable television audiences covering the dismissals, probably left many of those watching shaking their heads. (Photos and video of the protests may be seen here.)
The board also announced that Rodney A. Erickson, executive vice president and provost, will serve as interim president, and Tom Bradley, an assistant coach, will serve as interim head football coach.
Spanier and Paterno were both well-respected in higher education for their management of the institution and its football program, respectively. After the board’s announcement, several national organizations released statements commending their work. But their resignations raise significant questions about the difficulty of managing an institution as multifaceted as Penn State, and why they failed to respond when allegations were made over several years, from 1998 to 2002.
Just hours before the board’s announcement, at an annual dinner here of college and university presidents and media representatives -- a meeting Spanier has attended in the past -- other chief executives were reluctant to criticize the actions (or lack thereof) of Spanier and other Penn State officials, but noted some of the serious concerns the episode raised about university management.
The Penn State scandal began with a jolt on Friday when Jerry Sandusky, formerly a defensive coordinator for the university’s football team, was arrested on charges of sexually abusing children over a 15-year time span. Some of the incidents are alleged to have occurred in university athletic facilities. According to a grand jury report, a graduate assistant for the team witnessed one of the incidents in 2002 and reported it to Paterno.
Two top university officials -- Athletics Director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, interim senior vice president for finance and business -- have been charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report the abuse to authorities, and both men were forced out Monday.
Because the investigation surrounding Sandusky’s actions is ongoing, significant questions have hung over the university since Friday, particularly about what Paterno and Spanier knew about the abuse, when they knew about it, and why they did not report it. While the grand jury report states that both were informed about one particular incident, neither has been charged with any violation.
Spanier has also been criticized for a statement he issued Saturday unequivocally supporting Curley and Schultz, given that the university’s board promptly placed both on administrative leave on Sunday. Spanier was silent after that until the board announced his resignation Wednesday. In a statement, Spanier did not admit any wrongdoing but took responsibility for the actions that took place on his watch. “This university is a large and complex institution, and although I have always acted honorably and in the best interests of the university, the buck stops here,” he said. Paterno issued a statement of his own, expressing disappointment at the board's decision but urging his supporters to be calm.
At Wednesday’s dinner, questions about Penn State and Spanier’s handling of the situation dominated the first hour of discussion. .
Several presidents noted that Penn State’s situation shows the difficulty of having programs that are so central to a university’s operations from a branding and revenue perspective, and suggested that it’s possible for such programs to cloud administrators’ judgment. The football program at Penn State has been one of the institution’s major windows to the outside world for decades, and problems that arise in such areas can often be difficult for institutions to handle, the presidents said.
Athletics in particular were cited as a potential area of concern, and administrators praised recent reforms by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to address some of the undue influence athletics have on institutions. But others noted that even at institutions with Division III sports programs, which do not offer scholarships to athletes, athletics can be a tool that is used to recruit a significant population of the student body and, with that, a significant chunk of a university’s tuition revenue.
“When the stakes are that high, you just have to have your nose that much further in that point of business,” said Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College, and a former provost at Wake Forest University.
One of the major refrains in news media coverage of the Penn State situation, and a sentiment shared by the many of the presidents at Wednesday’s dinner, was how anyone could have witnessed the actions taking place and failed to intervene.
But universities, particularly of Penn State’s size, are complex organizations with multiple layers of governance and bureaucratic regulations. Having too many procedures in place could complicate what should be a simple reaction. “Even if you have procedures in place, they may not be the right procedures,” said Kenneth Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University. “They saw it as too complicated when it was really a simple question.”
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