Spanier Conviction Renews Debate on Penn State Post-Sandusky

Former president of university found guilty of child endangerment. Leader of outside investigation questions whether institution has learned lessons from the scandal.

March 27, 2017
 
Associated Press
Graham Spanier, during a break in his trial

A jury on Friday convicted Graham Spanier, a former president of Pennsylvania State University, of one count of child endangerment, capping a remarkable downfall for a man who was once a leading figure not just at Penn State but in American higher education.

Spanier was convicted of not taking appropriate action when he learned that Jerry Sandusky, at the time an assistant football coach, had been seen engaged in inappropriate conduct with young boys. Authorities later determined this conduct to be repeated sexual assaults, taking place over decades, which prosecutors said was made clear enough to Spanier and others that it should have been reported as potential child abuse.

The conviction also has reopened discussion of whether Penn State has learned lessons from the scandal. The university reacted quickly to the conviction Friday with a statement that was critical of Spanier and other senior officials at the time. But Louis Freeh, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who led an outside investigation at Penn State's behest, issued a scathing statement about the university's conduct during the years Sandusky engaged in abuse and since the Sandusky scandal broke. Freeh also called for the resignation of the current Penn State president.

The Sandusky scandal broke with his indictment in 2011, and he was convicted on 45 of the 48 charges against him in 2012.

But those verdicts did not resolve the debate over whether Spanier and other senior Penn State officials did enough to stop Sandusky.

Tim Curley, a former athletics director at Penn State, and Gary Schultz, a former senior vice president, were to have been co-defendants with Spanier. Instead, they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges and testified against Spanier, agreeing that they were obligated to have done more to prevent Sandusky's abuse.

The child-endangerment charge on which Spanier was convicted was originally a felony but was downgraded to a misdemeanor by the jury. The jury found him not guilty of another child-endangerment count and not guilty of conspiracy. Spanier's lawyer told reporters an appeal of the conviction was likely. Spanier could face up to five years in prison, although a prison term of that length is unlikely for a first-time offender.

Spanier was president of Penn State from 1995 to 2011 and was widely praised -- prior to the Sandusky scandal -- for building up the university, raising money ($3 billion over his tenure), starting new programs and generating positive publicity. On campus, Spanier was popular with students, performing as a musician and a magician. He hosted a call-in radio show. He was a national leader in higher education for much of the time he was president, chairing the board of the Association of American Universities, for example, and holding numerous important positions in the governance of college athletics.

While president at Penn State, Spanier was also something of an informal national spokesman for higher education on many issues, and he was known to reporters (including those at Inside Higher Ed) as a president who readily responded to calls and email messages -- and could speak eloquently on a wide range of issues.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, Penn State issued a statement that was critical of Spanier, Curley and Schultz.

"A jury today found former President Graham Spanier guilty of one count of endangering the welfare of a child," the statement said. "Recently, two former senior level administrators, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of endangering the welfare of a child, reportedly stating in part that, in the case of Curley: 'I pleaded guilty because I felt like I should have done more,' and Schultz: 'I felt I had been deficient in not reporting it myself.'

"The verdict, their words and pleas indicate a profound failure of leadership. Penn State has extraordinary expectations of our leaders, who must set and maintain the example for reporting, ethics and compliance that reflect best practices. In the view of the jury, with respect to Spanier, and by their own admission, as to Curley and Schultz, these former leaders fell short. And while we cannot undo the past, we have rededicated ourselves and our university to act always with the highest integrity, in affirming the shared values of our community."

Support for ‘Paterno Denier’ Position?

The university's statement prompted Freeh -- who has been silent on Penn State matters since he issued his report in 2012 -- to issue a two-page response in which he blasted Penn State leaders past and present. He noted that they never investigated another football coach's report of seeing Sandusky in a shower with a child -- an incident that was reported to them in 2001, allowing Sandusky's abuse to continue. It was that report that set up the charges against Spanier.

Of Spanier, Curley and Schultz, Freeh said, "For over 12 years, these men actively protected a notorious pedophile who inflicted irreparable harm on countless child victims on the campuses and locker rooms at PSU. Although these men had multiple opportunities to stop this vicious, serial predator from continuing to sexually assault children who trusted the PSU campuses and programs as safe havens, they decided together to protect this monster rather than report him to the police."

Freeh also criticized the current leadership of Penn State, including the late head football coach, Joe Paterno, and the current president, Eric Barron.

"Barron and a coterie of 'Paterno denier' board members, alumni, cult-like groups such as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a former professional football player and certain elected state political hacks have been nothing but apologists for Paterno, Spanier, Schultz and Curley, more concerned about bringing back a bronze statue than worrying about the multiple child victims who have forever been so grievously harmed on the PSU campus," said Freeh.

"Barron can do one last good act of service to PSU by resigning," Freeh said.

The university has been praised since the scandal broke for putting in place new protections to assure the reporting of any suspected child abuse. Most of the criticism of Penn State is on broader issues of the way Paterno and others were judged.

Freeh's reference to a bronze statue concerns a likeness of Paterno, which was removed from the campus in 2012, not long after the scandal broke (to the anger of many alumni and students). The university has in the last year also been criticized for the way it has responded to new allegations about Paterno, and for its decision to publicly honor Paterno, who died in 2012. Many of the reports about the Sandusky scandal have criticized how he failed to respond to concerns about Sandusky, whose connection to the university football team gave him a status in the State College area that led boys and their families to trust him.

Last year, court documents were unsealed suggesting that as early as 1976 Paterno was aware of reports that Sandusky was abusing children. Previously, the earliest date alleged for when Paterno knew of the possibility was 2001. The new court documents raised the possibility that Paterno's failure to report Sandusky enabled the assistant coach to go on assaulting children for years.

When these revelations were made, Barron, the Penn State president, said in a statement, "While individuals hold different opinions and may draw different inferences from the testimony about former Penn State employees, speculation by Penn State is not useful. Although settlements have been reached, it also is important to reiterate that the alleged knowledge of former Penn State employees is not proven and should not be treated as such. Some individuals deny the claims, and others are unable to defend themselves. Speculation also serves to drive a wedge within the Penn State community."

Then later last year, the university angered many advocates for victims of child abuse when it honored the 50th anniversary of Paterno becoming head coach. At a football game, the university played videos praising Paterno and highlighting various parts of his career. Penn State fans cheered.

In response to Freeh's statement, Penn State released another statement, this one from Ira Lubert, the university's board chair.

"I take exception with Freeh's statement and categorically reject his criticism of President Barron," Lubert said. "The board leadership and President Barron have been consistent in our communications about the Freeh report. We embraced the road map for reforms that Freeh presented and have disagreed firmly with Freeh's characterization of Penn State culture. President Barron has led the creation of a model ethics and compliance program to protect and support the university community. He has my full support and appreciation for his leadership and accomplishments."

The reference to culture is from Freeh's 2012 report, in which he said attitudes at the university enabled Sandusky's abuse to go unchallenged for so long. “For the past several decades, the university’s athletic department was permitted to become a closed community. There was little personnel turnover or hiring from outside the university and strong internal loyalty,” the report said. “The athletic department was perceived by many in the Penn State community as ‘an island,’ where staff members lived by their own rules.”

A Scandal Breaks and Escalates

When Sandusky was charged in 2011, the news stunned people in higher education and the public. Even amid a steady stream of athletics scandals, the idea that an assistant coach for a storied football team could have engaged in decades of sexual abuse of children was stunning. And the shock was even greater because Penn State had long cultivated a reputation as a university where big-time college athletics were operated with integrity.

From the very start of the scandal, Spanier drew criticism.

His first statement spent more time defending the two senior officials who were at the time charged with perjury in their comments to investigators -- Curley and Schultz -- than it did on the crimes of which Sandusky was indicted and later convicted: dozens of counts of sexual abuse of young boys.

"The allegations about a former coach are troubling, and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance," Spanier said at the time. "With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former university employee. Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately."

Despite Spanier's support, the university announced the next day that they had resigned.

A few days later, the board dismissed Spanier and Paterno.

Later in 2012, Spanier said that he could not have ignored Sandusky's abuse, had he known about it, because Spanier himself had been a victim of "persistent abuse as a child."

When Penn State released its statement Friday after Spanier was convicted, the first sentence was not about the university or senior officials. The sentence: "First and foremost, our thoughts remain with the victims of Jerry Sandusky."

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