Leadership & Governance

Guilty Verdict Puts a Dark Coda on Spanier’s Fall

March 24, 2017

Matt Rourke, AP Images
Graham Spanier leaves the Dauphin County Courthouse, in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday. The former Penn State president, charged in connection with Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse, was found guilty on one count of endangering the welfare of children, but not guilty on two other charges.
Graham B. Spanier, the former president of Pennsylvania State University, endangered children whom he should have protected.

After more than 12 hours of deliberations over two days, a jury on Friday found Mr. Spanier guilty of one misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of children. He was found not guilty on two other charges, including criminal conspiracy and an additional count of child endangerment.

The crime of which Mr. Spanier was convicted is punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. But Mr. Spanier, who plans to appeal, could have faced far worse. The charge of child endangerment, which can be a felony, was downgraded to a misdemeanor because the jury did not find that the crime represented a pattern of conduct by Mr. Spanier.

The case against Mr. Spanier, argued here this week in Dauphin County Court, hinged on whether the former president and his lieutenants had failed to protect young children who were sexually assaulted on Penn State’s campus by Jerry Sandusky, a former Nittany Lions assistant football coach.

Friday’s verdict placed a dark coda on a nationally significant case that, at its heart, functioned as an indictment of the leadership and judgment of a highly respected former college administrator who prosecutors argued had been blinded by hubris and an unyielding desire to protect his reputation at the expense of young boys.

"Graham Spanier was corrupted by his own power," Laura Ditka, Pennsylvania’s chief deputy attorney general, who led the prosecution, said in closing arguments on Thursday. "He was a leader that failed to lead."

“Graham Spanier was corrupted by his own power. He was a leader that failed to lead.”
The case has impeded closure for Penn State, a major research university that has never fully recovered from a saga that joined sexual abuse and big-time college sports. It was the lure of Nittany Lions football, prosecutors asserted, that allowed Mr. Sandusky to groom and ensnare his victims, whom he sexually abused in Penn State facilities.

To protect that big brand, prosecutors said, Mr. Spanier agreed with a plan not to alert the authorities, in 2001, when Mr. Sandusky was spotted naked with a boy in a Penn State locker-room shower. That decision, the verdict suggests, allowed Mr. Sandusky to abuse more children for a decade before his arrest, in 2011.

Mr. Sandusky is serving a prison sentence of 30 to 60 years on charges related to the sexual abuse of 10 boys.

Prosecutors did not say on Friday whether they would seek jail time for Mr. Spanier.

The jury, consisting of seven women and five men, gave the case lengthy and apparently detailed consideration, returning to the courtroom on a few occasions to ask highly technical questions about the language of the charges. At one point, they asked that an entire piece of testimony be read aloud to them in open court.

Judge John A. Boccabella told them, at the trial’s conclusion, that he did not recall a jury ever asking more-intelligent questions about a case.

Raw Nerves

Mr. Spanier was stoic throughout the trial, and he remained expressionless as the jury’s foreman read the verdict. He said nothing to members of the news media after the trial, remaining silent as a Chronicle reporter asked whether he had anything to say to the victims.

The verdict exposed raw nerves among Mr. Spanier’s supporters, including a number of Penn State trustees who attended the trial. Albert L. Lord, a member of the university’s board, was visibly frustrated by the verdict, and he admonished the Chronicle reporter for asking Mr. Spanier about the abuse victims, calling the query wildly inappropriate and disrespectful.

“He's a man of integrity. I wish I could say the same thing for the prosecution.”
Mr. Lord’s views reflect those of the former president’s core group of allies, who say that Mr. Spanier was unjustly scapegoated and that they refuse to accept the verdict as just.

"He’s a man of integrity," Mr. Lord said. "I wish I could say the same thing for the prosecution. That show that Laura Ditka put on yesterday, it was an embarrassment to the American legal system."

Since his firing, in 2011, Mr. Spanier has maintained his innocence, declining a plea bargain that would have dropped all felony charges. Timothy M. Curley, Penn State’s former athletics director, and Gary C. Schultz, a former vice president for finance and business, both took misdemeanor-level plea deals rather than face the serious charges that Mr. Spanier battled in court.

Mr. Spanier, a prominent figure in the world of college and university leadership, became a pariah in the course of the Sandusky scandal. He has been on paid administrative leave from Penn State since November 2012, and he is now suing the university he once led for breach of contract.

The trial opened a window onto Mr. Spanier’s complicated legacy, as both a man beloved by those who see him as falsely accused and abandoned by colleagues whom he worked with over 16 years as president.

Throughout the trial, Mr. Spanier’s wife, Sandra Spanier, an English professor at Penn State, and his son, Brian Spanier, looked on from the gallery’s front row. Supporters stayed in area hotels, night after night, and waited grueling hours in the hallways of the courthouse, sitting on floors and wooden benches, as the jury deliberated.

But the spectacle was as intriguing for who was not present as who was. Rodney A. Erickson, who served for many years as Mr. Spanier’s provost and who succeeded him as Penn State’s president, never showed up in court. Nor did Eric J. Barron, the university’s current president. Nor did it appear that any members of Penn State’s board, save those elected to positions for alumni, attended the trial.

In a statement on Friday that was not attributed to any specific Penn State official, the university appeared to distance itself from Mr. Spanier and his colleagues.

"Penn State has extraordinary expectations of our leaders, who must set and maintain the example for reporting, ethics, and compliance that reflect best practices," the statement read. "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."

A Blistering Statement

Louis J. Freeh, who led an independent investigation that culminated five years ago in a 267-page report on Penn State's handling of the Sandusky case, issued a two-page statement in the wake of Friday’s verdict that tore into the university’s leadership and called on President Barron to resign.

The statement seems almost certain to escalate efforts by a cohort of trustees to expose what they see as flaws and unfounded assertions in Mr. Freeh's report. Several trustees, who were elected to the board on platforms critical of the investigation, successfully sued the university for access to all of the documents that Mr. Freeh and his team composed or reviewed to produce their report. The trustees are not permitted to discuss their findings in detail without full board approval, but several have hinted privately that they are disturbed by what they have seen. 

Whether Mr. Freeh's statement will compel the trustees to release information they may have uncovered remains an open question.

The biggest opposition to releasing the Freeh materials to the trustees came from Mr. Barron, who blasted his own board members for suing the university for the information. A spokesman for the president did not immediately respond to questions about whether Mr. Barron would be any more inclined to release the materials in light of Mr. Freeh's statement.

Mr. Barron has long maintained that the materials could not be released without revealing the identities of whistle-blowers, who he says had a reasonable expectation of anonymity.

John S. Nichols, a close friend of Mr. Spanier’s and a professor emeritus of communications and international affairs at Penn State, described the trial as part of a long and difficult process that, he said, would end with a successful appeal that proves Mr. Spanier is not a criminal. But so much damage, Mr. Nichols said, has already been done.

"It’s taken away," he said, "one of the best careers in higher education without justification."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.

Editor’s note (3/25/2017, 2:05 p.m.): This article has been updated to include information about Mr. Freeh’s statement following Friday’s verdict.