Since last November, when the Jerry Sandusky saga propelled Penn State into the headlines, I’ve wondered about Penn State’s former president, Graham Spanier. After reading the Freeh Report in its nauseating detail, I did more than wonder — I started digging for Spanier’s own words on what it means to be a university president.

Let’s go back eleven months, when NCAA Division I presidents concluded a summit that called for “bold, sweeping changes” in intercollegiate athletics. In the NCAA’s own press release on the summit, Spanier had this to say about the need to reform the NCAA rulebook:

Some of these things our coaches and our boosters might not like, but we need to do what I think you are going to see happen in the next year. . . . [Violators] should be afraid now, if they are going to go out and break any rules – because people have had enough of that. . . . The folks that are trying to disrupt the integrity of intercollegiate athletics in this country are going to have to be held more accountable than has been the case in the past.

Somehow, I think what we’ve seen unfold at Penn State in this past year is NOT what Spanier had in mind. Holding people more accountable was clearly not part of the administrative ethos when talking about coaches and boosters at Penn State, as the Freeh Report made abundantly clear.

A few months before that summit of NCAA Division I presidents, Spanier was at the heart of the 2011 investigation of the Fiesta Bowl for financial irregularities and other major problems. At the time, Spanier was the chair of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, and chaired the BCS investigative task force that looked into the matter. From the task force’s report, page 1:

The Task Force believes that the board of directors of the Fiesta Bowl failed in its responsibility to properly oversee the management and administration of the Bowl. The Board allowed executive staff to have extraordinary leeway in making decisions without paying heed to checks and balances to ensure that the Bowl was run in a proper and ethical manner. The Task Force is deeply troubled by the evidence set forth in the Special Committee’s report. That evidence strongly suggests that the Bowl’s executive staff frequently acted with scant regard for ethics and proper conduct. Further, it is the opinion of the Task Force that the Bowl’s board of directors over the years was negligent in its oversight responsibilities.

Gosh, that sounds familiar. Executive staff with too much autonomy and too little oversight? Oh, yes, I remember now . . .

But looking at the details, the parallels get worse. As the task force began to outline the problems, here’s where they started (p. 10):

First, representatives of the Fiesta Bowl acknowledged that board oversight had been lacking and that far too much authority – often unquestioned in its exercise – had been invested in the executive staff of the organization. According to the board, senior management had established a culture in which certain business practices were not questioned, and staff members did not believe that they could question practices of management. . . .

Second, there were no mechanisms in place for staff to raise issues with the board without jeopardizing their employment status. According to Fiesta Bowl representatives, that problem was exacerbated by the close relationship between the senior management and outside contractors and consultants who might ordinarily have been expected to act as a check on management.

Gosh, that sounds familiar. Unquestioned authority? A culture of non-accountability? Staff who fear for their jobs if they raise troubling issues? Oh, yes, I remember now . . .

The NCAA’s press release on the penalties levied by the committee chaired by Spanier in the Fiesta Bowl mess summed it up like this:

The oversight committee Wednesday accepted recommendations made in a report by a BCS task force which was “deeply troubled” by the Fiesta Bowl’s actions. Those actions, the task force said, “strongly suggests that the bowl’s executive staff frequently acted with scant regard for ethics and proper conduct. Further, it is the opinion of the task force that the bowl’s board of directors over the years was negligent in its oversight responsibilities.”

Gosh, that sounds familiar. Scant regard for ethics and proper conduct? A negligent board? Oh, yes, I remember now . . .

Go back a few more years, and we learn that Spanier was honored with TIAA-CREF’s 2009 Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence. In their announcement, TIAA-CREF quoted Spanier on what leadership means:

In an interview with the TIAA-CREF Institute about the award that bears his name, Father Hesburgh stated that, “Vision is what leadership is all about. Leadership is how you bring vision into reality. If you want people to go with you, you have to share a vision.” Dr. Spanier added, “Leadership is about vision first and foremost, but it’s also about getting it done. There also has to be execution. It’s about creating an environment where it’s possible for everyone to succeed and feel good about what they are doing.”

Hmmmm . . . given what the Freeh Report had to say about Spanier’s vision and the environment at Penn State under his leadership, I wonder if TIAA-CREF wants to rethink the award.

But go back to 2007, and we find what might be the words Spanier might like to have back the most when it comes to talking about himself and his approach to his job as a major university president. They come from a 2007 profile of him in Northwestern magazine (Spanier earned his PhD in sociology from NU in 1973):

A family sociologist, demographer and marriage and family therapist by training, Spanier has presided over tremendous growth at Penn State . . .

Spanier’s doctoral work at Northwestern gave him a mix of quantitative and qualitative skills as well as an ahead-of-its-time interdisciplinary atmosphere. “That diversity of training has been very helpful to me as a university president because I’ve been able to see the big picture and analyze data and, at the same time, focus on more private, intimate situations where interactions between people are critically important,” he says.

Hmmmm . . . Perhaps a little less concern for the big picture (Penn State football, Joe Paterno’s legacy, donors and financial supporters, Penn State’s reputation), and a little more concern for the “more private, intimate situations” like those involving Jerry Sandusky and his numerous victims would have been helpful. It’s not as if Spanier’s academic work was in engineering or business administration. For someone trained in marriage and family therapy, he has an appalling understanding of child abuse and predatory pedophiles. If you assume that he didn’t actively try to protect a known child abuser, then you have to conclude from the Freeh Report that his data analysis skills leave much to be desired. But “I’m an idiot, not a crook” is hardly a stirring vision of presidential leadership.

According to the official presidential biography of Spanier on the Penn State Library’s website, Spanier was the chair of the board of ChildFund International. CFI describes their mission like this:

  • To help deprived, excluded and vulnerable children living in poverty have the capacity to become young adults, parents and leaders who bring lasting and positive change to their communities.
  • To promote societies whose individuals and institutions participate in valuing, protecting, and advancing the worth and the rights of children.

Number one on their list of “our beliefs”?

That all children deserve an environment of hope, respect and understanding.

I love that statement by CFI. Too bad that Spanier apparently didn’t think it referred to the children caught in the Penn State environment that allowed Jerry Sandusky to identify, groom, and take sexual advantage of them.

Spainer’s words about the deeds and misdeeds of other institutions and leaders are powerful. It’s too bad he didn’t apply them to himself and his own institution. In addition to saving his job, it also might have saved an untold number of kids from being raped and abused at the hands of Jerry Sandusky.


Photo h/t: BoogaFrito