Penn State's President Juggles National Issues and Tiny Campus Details

March 30, 2001

Graham B. Spanier has a smile plastered on his face as he wends his way through the crowded gymnasium at Pennsylvania State University. Hundreds of students have just kicked off a 48-hour dance marathon to raise money for children battling cancer at the university's hospital.

With music blaring in the background, Mr. Spanier, Penn State's president, tries to explain how the annual event has become the largest student-run philanthropy in the world -- collecting a record-breaking $3.6-million this year -- but he keeps being interrupted. Like giddy teens swarming their favorite rock star, students rush him with cameras in hand asking for "a picture with Graham." His celebrity status is rivaled here only by Joe Paterno, the university's legendary football coach.

He jokes with a few students, returns the fire of another -- wielding a squirt gun -- and impresses a local youngster by turning a $2 bill into two $10's (he's adviser to the university's magic club).

It's 7:30 on a Friday evening, but before his night ends some six hours from now, Mr. Spanier will catch a few minutes of the men's hockey game with the chairman of the Board of Trustees, scurry through the student union to check out programs that he pushed through to provide alternatives to drinking for students, and close out the night back at the dance marathon.

By all accounts, this is a typical Friday night for Mr. Spanier -- that is, when he's here. Like presidents of other public-university systems, Mr. Spanier travels his state, building legislative support, putting out political fires, and raising his university's visibility. In a combination few can match, he also is emerging as a player in Washington, but remains centrally involved in campus life.

He is off campus almost as much as on: raising money (some $1.1-billion since he arrived in 1995, more than in Penn State's entire history), testifying before Congress, chairing committees for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or visiting one of the university's 21 branch campuses, which are nestled in small towns across the state.

He has presided over a period of unprecedented growth at Penn State, imposing a bold vision on what many had seen as a gigantic -- at 81,000 students statewide -- but plodding public institution. The university's new School of Information Sciences and Technology, an idea dreamed up by Mr. Spanier in 1997, already has an enrollment of 1,400. He also has created a model for distance education with Penn State's World Campus, expanded many of the university's two-year branch campuses into four-year colleges, and reorganized its agricultural extension to provide advice to more than just farmers.

Nothing at Penn State escapes his attention: During a tour of a recently completed classroom building, his darting eyes noticed a covered exit sign and a cracked light fixture. When a student who he chatted with complained about the temperature in a classroom, Mr. Spanier passed the news on to the building's project manager.

That's not to say that Mr. Spanier -- despite his manic pace and overall popularity -- hasn't sparked his fair share of controversy. While most students and professors praise the folksy style he brings to the job from his academic background in human development, some black students note that regardless of his constant talk of civility, there's been little improvement in race relations on campus, for instance. Presidents of a few private colleges in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, still blame their economic struggles on Penn State's expansion of its branch campuses.

And at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Mr. Spanier's defense of academic freedom makes him a target for lawmakers who are offended by certain activities on campus here. For instance, last month he found himself before legislators defending the free-speech rights of students involved in a flap over a sex-education fair on campus.

Whether Mr. Spanier can sustain the pace that he has chosen, and that the job demands, is something only he can answer.

"I think I'm going to better serve Penn State if I work harder and burn out a couple of years earlier, than work less hard and stay two years longer," Mr. Spanier says. "At some point, I will need to step out of this position, and when I do, I want to feel like I gave it everything. It's not in the best interest of the university if you take it easy just so you could stick around a year or two longer."

The last two months have been anything but easy for Mr. Spanier. The sex fair in February, which featured anatomically correct gingerbread cookies and a game of orgasm bingo, was caught on videotape by a Philadelphia-area lawmaker who was upset by a similar event on campus last fall. Rep. John Lawless, a Republican, then took to the airwaves on Laura Schlessinger's syndicated talk show and elsewhere, and called for the state to immediately suspend Penn State's $332-million appropriation.

Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, weighed in, writing in a letter to Mr. Spanier that he opposed withholding state dollars from the university, but adding that the university should have placed "common-sense restrictions" on the events.

At a legislative budget hearing -- which was scheduled to last 90 minutes, but dragged on for four hours -- Mr. Lawless played excerpts from his tape. It showed him walking around the sex fair asking confrontational questions of students and waving sex-toy brochures for the camera. Several lawmakers pressed Mr. Spanier, trying to get him to condemn the event as "wrong." He would only say that he found parts of the two events "offensive" and "embarrassing."

Mr. Spanier now calls the hearing the "toughest" of his career, and in fact says that university officials would have been "wrong" to shut down the two student events.

"I wish that the students who put on the event would have been more sensitive to how it would be perceived outside," he said. "But we do support the right of students to plan their own events, and we do support freedom of expression."

At a meeting this month, several members of the university's Board of Trustees commended Mr. Spanier for standing up to Mr. Lawless. The lawmaker, known for his crusades against higher education in this state, remains the lone voice for cutting off funds for Penn State.

"Penn State likes the image of being a conservative school all the way down to their football uniforms without names on their jerseys," Mr. Lawless grumbles. "But under Graham Spanier's leadership, the university has moved to the left."

Two years ago, Mr. Spanier faced similar pressure from the state legislature when it threatened to pull Penn State's appropriation if university leaders adopted a recommendation by the Faculty Senate to offer same-sex domestic benefits. Rather than risk losing the money, Mr. Spanier put the proposal on hold.

While state funds are important to Penn State, it depends on them a lot less than do most state universities. Only about 15 percent of Penn State's operating budget comes from the state, compared with about 28 percent for the average flagship public university. That's because Penn State is considered a "state-related," or quasi-public, institution, in this state. Among other things, the autonomy allows the university to elect most of the members of its governing board, and lets Mr. Spanier keep his salary secret, unlike other public-college presidents.

It also has forced Penn State to look elsewhere for funds. The university is in the midst of a seven-year, $1-billion capital campaign; it has already raised $900-million with two years left to go.

"He seems to enjoy fund raising," says Lloyd Huck, former chairman and chief executive officer of Merck & Co., who has given about $15-million to Penn State. "He puts the person at ease, spends some time on how the funds we're trying to raise contribute to the performance of the university, and then he's not afraid to ask for a very big number. He doesn't hem or haw or apologize for asking."

Faculty leaders credit Mr. Spanier for helping to improve Penn State's reputation through his national activities and for thinking creatively about new academic programs, such as the School of Information Sciences and Technology.

"He had a vision for what he wanted and came to the university community and said, 'How can we get this done and done fast?'" says Murry R. Nelson, a professor of education and past chairman of the Faculty Senate. "He does not fill the role as the imperial president. He was working with the faculty from the word go."

Only 21 months elapsed from the initial meeting of a study committee for the technology school in 1997 to the arrival of the first students, a record for any new academic endeavor here, many professors say. The proposal involved four different Faculty Senate committees, and the faculty group even agreed to meet over the summer to speed up the approval process ("We never do that," Mr. Nelson says).

The school currently awards certificates and two- and four-year degrees in such programs as Web design, information systems, and technology public policy at 19 campuses. A Ph.D. program will begin this fall, and a new $58.5-million home for the school is scheduled to be completed in 2003.

"Graham has this ability to identify important trends in higher education early on," says William E. Kirwan, president of Ohio State University.

Mr. Spanier often thinks boldly, throwing out thoughts in what he calls "the wild-idea category" to administrators just to gauge their reaction. To some, the flurry of big ideas is off-putting; to others, it's refreshing since his predecessor, Joab Thomas, was much more reserved.

"Graham could talk a horse into a glue factory," says William W. Asbury, vice president for student affairs, who has worked at Penn State for 24 years. "The pace of change here is clearly faster than it ever has been."

Mr. Spanier has been pushing all his life. His father escaped to South Africa from Nazi Germany, where 20 of his close relatives had died in concentration camps. Soon after Mr. Spanier was born in 1948, apartheid became law in South Africa, and his father, seeing a policy similar to that of his old home, packed up for Chicago, where he supported the family by loading trucks in a warehouse. Mr. Spanier was host of a series of Chicago news and variety radio shows starting at age 15, and co-hosted a 15-minute television sports program two years later. (He now hosts a call-in talk show about all kinds of topics on public television and radio here).

The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Spanier began his teaching career at Penn State in 1973. He often visited preschool children as "Graham the clown," and when that act tired, he added magic tricks to his repertoire. After three administrative positions elsewhere, including a short four-year stint as chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Mr. Spanier returned here in 1995.

From the beginning, administrators and faculty members say, Mr. Spanier recognized the need for the university to expand its reach from its isolated setting here. He broadened the university's agricultural extension, which provides advice to farmers in the state's 67 counties, to reach out to more state residents by including other disciplines at Penn State.

He also volunteered to lead high-profile committees of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the N.C.A.A. With the land-grant colleges, he marshaled 110 institutions nationwide to run full-page newspaper advertisements about the dangers of student drinking. At the N.C.A.A., he resisted efforts to lower the initial-eligibility requirements for athletes in response to complaints that the standards discriminated against black students.

Meanwhile, back on campus, he pressed for a university-wide effort to deliver distance education over the Internet. While many universities simply put a hodgepodge of individual courses online, Mr. Spanier focused on putting up the university's signature degree programs online, such as turf-grass management and geographic information systems, says Frank Mayadas, a director at the Sloan Foundation, which has provided a grant to Penn State's World Campus. In addition, he says, Penn State added legitimacy to its online program by relying on professors in academic departments rather than its continuing-education division.

One of Mr. Spanier's most controversial expansion efforts was the 1997 transformation of the university's two-year branch campuses into four-year colleges. Many of the state's 90-plus private colleges saw the move as a giant land grab in their own backyards. Penn State officials said it was meant to retain more of their own students who never completed a four-year degree, while also capping enrollment at the flagship campus here. Some private-college presidents say their relationship with Penn State, while improving, is still rocky.

"Penn State's expansion may have been perceived as the final straw for some privates," says Peter J. Balcziunas, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Universities, a group that includes both public and private institutions. "And Graham Spanier became the lightning rod for that concern, frustration, and anxiety."

On campus, Mr. Spanier has become a target for black students who say he has not done enough to help them, following a series of high-profile hate crimes last fall, including racist death threats mailed to three students and a university trustee. After a six-hour meeting with black student leaders last December, Mr. Spanier signed a statement admitting that the university had failed to fully put its diversity plan in place. He also established a committee to study the problem.

Some other students don't like Mr. Spanier's views on alcohol abuse. He is outspoken on how alcohol "permeates" student life, and two years ago he opened the student union here 24 hours on weekends to provide alternatives to drinking. This semester, the university opened its recreation center all night as well. The student union now offers food service and six or more events each weekend night, including arts and that go on until about 2 a.m. On Friday and Saturday nights, Mr. Spanier often stops by to check on the turnout.

"Look at this!" Mr. Spanier says as he opens the door to a darkened movie theater in the student union. "It's late on a Friday night and we have 400 students watching a movie. It's sold out!"

Because most drinking occurs off campus, university officials say they're unsure if the programs are having an impact on alcohol consumption. Still, they note that attendance at the union is up from a few hundred people two years ago to 3,000 on an average night now.

Matthew Roan, president of the undergraduate student body here, says that given Mr. Spanier's high-profile status on campus, some students are bound to disagree with him.

"He puts himself out there," Mr. Roan says. "I think he has good intentions, but because he's so visible, people expect him to respond to everything."

Mr. Spanier's marathon pace worries the president of the university's Board of Trustees, Edward R. Hintz Jr. "I would rather get 120 percent than 150 percent and get two more years out of him," Mr. Hintz says as he watches Mr. Spanier hand out an award to a player at the hockey game. "I always say, 'Do you really have to go to this, do you really have to do that?' and his position is he does."

Many faculty members and administrators speculate that this will not be Mr. Spanier's last job as president of a university. Mr. Spanier disagrees, saying that Penn State feels like home to him. His son, now a Penn State student, was born here, and his wife, Sandra, is an English professor at the university.

As he walks through a recently remodeled building on campus, Mr. Spanier comes across his old department, Human Development and Family Studies. He studies the roster of faculty members on a wall, as if looking for his own name.

"This is where my office will be someday," he says.


BORN: July 18, 1948, in Cape Town, South Africa, to parents who had fled Nazi Germany and who would later move to Chicago.

EDUCATION: B.S. in sociology, Iowa State University, 1969; M.S. in sociology, Iowa State University, 1971; Ph.D. in sociology, Northwestern University, 1973.

ACADEMIC CAREER: President, Pennsylvania State University, 1995-present; chancellor, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, 1991-95; provost and vice president for academic affairs, Oregon State University, 1986-91; vice provost for undergraduate studies, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1982-86; assistant dean for resident instruction of the college of human development, Penn State, 1979-82; professor, associate professor, and assistant professor of human development and sociology, Penn State, 1973-82.

SAMPLE OF PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES: Chairman-elect, National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, 2000-1; chairman, Division I Board of Directors, National Collegiate Athletic Association, 1998-2001; chairman, Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, 1997-2000; member, Board of Trustees, National 4-H Council, 1997-2000.

PERSONAL: His wife, Sandra, is an associate professor of English at Penn State; two children. He typically goes to bed well after midnight, once he replies to the day's e-mail messages (he has a reputation for responding within 24 hours). He bunks in the dormitories at the beginning of each academic year, and regularly eats with students in the dining halls. When he meets students, he often asks them to name their favorite professor, and then writes letters to those faculty members. To relax, he plays racquetball three times a week and goes whitewater rafting every summer. He also recently started playing the washboard in a jazz band. A moviegoer, he tries to see every movie playing during the university's December break and sends e-mail messages to friends with his own star ratings. Recent favorites: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Finding Forrester (both 3 1/2 stars).

SOURCE: Chronicle reporting Section: Government & Politics Page: A28