HARRISBURG, Pa. — The story being told by Penn State president Graham Spanier as he defends himself against accusations that he covered up a sex abuse allegation runs contrary into his own reputation as a detail-oriented manager.
But experts in university governance also suggest that if Spanier truly didn’t know what was going on, he showed a willful ignorance and a disturbing lack of curiosity about a scandal that stood to ruin Penn State’s reputation.
In a series of interviews this week and at a Philadelphia news conference, Spanier and his lawyers have repeatedly portrayed him as somewhat on the sidelines, completely unaware that complaints about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky were serious enough to warrant much more than passing attention.
The governance experts acknowledge the job of president requires dealing with a continual stream of problems, but they are raising doubts that Spanier took a less than active role in investigating the scandal that engulfed two of his top lieutenants and longtime football coach Joe Paterno.
“You can say I didn’t know. You can say I was distracted. You can say they didn’t tell me — up to a point,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, who spent three decades as president at the University of Hartford and George Washington University.
“But from what we have heard about what transpired, his vice president, his director of athletics, his coaches allegedly were concealing this bad news from him for such an extensive period of time that I find the story implausible,” he said.
Spanier said he had no recollection of email traffic involving a 1998 police investigation of Sandusky, triggered by a woman’s complaints that he had showered with her son. He also told The New Yorker he had little memory of a 2001 complaint about Sandusky in a team shower with a boy, and that a follow-up meeting on the topic was wedged into his schedule during a busy time.
Sandusky was convicted of various criminal counts in June for both of those encounters, as well as child sexual abuse of eight other boys. He awaits sentencing.
Spanier has not been charged with any crimes, but athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, who reported to him on the matters, are expected to go to trial in January on charges they lied to a grand jury about the Sandusky scandal and did not properly report the 2001 accusation to authorities.
Spanier, who hasn’t responded to requests for an Associated Press interview, told ABC that the 2001 case was only characterized as “horseplay.”
But even that should have raised red flags, said Mary Gray, an American University math and statistics professor with an expertise in university governance.
“If he was told that, I would think if I was the university president, I would ask, ‘What do you mean by horsing around?”’ said Gray. “He should have assigned somebody to look into this in more detail and get back to him.”
Penn State has a $4.3 billion budget, some 90,000 students and nearly 25,000 employees — a massive operation by any measure.
“I think that there is a myth out there, to some degree, that university presidents are omniscient about what’s going on at their institution,” said John Burness, a former senior vice president at Duke University who teaches a course on higher education and the media.
Presidents move from issue to issue all day long and continually multitask, Burness said.
“That said, it is a little difficult to believe, given the prominence of Joe Paterno and the various emails that ended up going back and forth … that this isn’t something that a president or someone wouldn’t be paying very serious attention to,” he said.
The university-commissioned investigation into the Sandusky scandal that was led by former federal judge and FBI director Louis Freeh turned up an email from Spanier to Curley that seemed to agree with a decision not to alert authorities to the 2001 complaint.
“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier wrote at the time. “The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed.”
Spanier was known as a micromanager if it was an issue he cared about and a man so busy that he had to schedule racquetball games a year in advance, said Penn State geography professor Brett Yarnal, chair-elect of the school’s faculty senate.
“There’s constantly stuff going on,” Yarnal said. “I can see where something, if it was kind of being shielded from the president as far as the gravity of the situation, by other people, Curley, Schultz, and whatever, I could see that it could not register really brightly on the radar screen. It’s believable.
“I don’t know that I believe it, but it’s believable,” Yarnal said.
Two years ago, Curley, Schultz and Paterno were summoned to testify before a grand jury. In his account to The New Yorker, Spanier suggested he asked few questions about the topic.
“I cannot imagine not having, what shall we say, the curiosity to want to know what the devil is going on and to be sure the university’s interests are protected,” Trachtenberg said. “It shows to me, at minimum, a gross lack of curiosity, sort of almost a willful ignorance.”
Yarnal said Spanier’s description of his reaction to news of the grand jury struck him as disingenuous.
“I read that and thought, ‘Now come on, Graham. If you hear the junior VPs and your football coach are called before a grand jury, you’re not going to show some sort of curiosity about what’s going on here?”’ Yarnal said. “I don’t care how busy you are.”