Leadership & Governance

Spanier's National Footprint Fades

Gene Puskar, AP Images

Traces of Graham B. Spanier (shown in Penn State's football stadium before a game last month) are hard to find on the campus or its Web site now, less than a week after his removal as president.
November 14, 2011

Graham B. Spanier's biography was difficult to find on Pennsylvania State University's Web site by Wednesday night, within hours of his firing by trustees. A Google search for any such information would redirect users to a statement from the university's board, which declared Mr. Spanier, the university's leader for 16 years, was "no longer president."

Mr. Spanier's name has disappeared from a number of places in recent days. Since he lost his job in connection with child sex-abuse allegations aimed at a former assistant football coach, organizations large and small have distanced themselves from Mr. Spanier. A nonprofit youth group, a national-security organization, and the Bowl Championship Series, where Mr. Spanier served on a presidential oversight committee, have all severed ties with him. Even Mr. Spanier's high school got in on the act, removing an honorary plaque that recognized him as a distinguished alumnus.

Mr. Spanier had a significant national footprint, but it is fading with notable speed.

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It is not surprising that the university has sought to distance itself from Mr. Spanier in the near term, even though his contributions were numerous, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, who had occasion to work with Mr. Spanier.

"I suspect what Penn State is doing is very much designed to position itself to begin the healing process," he said. "That's going to take years."

How Mr. Spanier will be viewed in years to come is still a matter of debate. A grand-jury report released last week noted that Penn State officials failed to contact proper authorities when they learned of allegations that Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, sexually assaulted a boy in a university shower in 2002. Mr. Spanier denied that he was told the incident was "sexual in nature," suggesting he was only informed that the child and Mr. Sandusky were "horsing around in the shower."

A 'Cooling Off' Period

Mr. Spanier is still considered a faculty member at Penn State, but there are few outward signs of his continuing affiliation. His name, for instance, does not appear in the university's online directory. The College of Health and Human Development, where Mr. Spanier would seem logically to be appointed because of his discipline, has not discussed his future role in public. Ann C. Crouter, the college's dean, did not respond to inquiries on the subject on Monday.

Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis consultant, said it is natural and appropriate for an organization to have a "cooling off" period before acknowledging the contributions of a leader whose tenure is called into question during a scandal.

"The institution can slowly reintroduce their legacy. To do that now, it's too soon and too fresh," said Ms. Parrot, who worked at the University of Colorado system in the early 2000s when football players and recruits there faced accusations of raping women.

The list of national organizations cutting ties with Mr. Spanier is growing each day. Since he is no longer president of Penn State, Mr. Spanier lost his position as chair of the Bowl Championship Series Presidential Oversight Committee. He is also no longer chair of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, an FBI spokesman said Monday.

Late last week, Mr. Spanier also resigned from the board of Junior Achievement Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that provides entrepreneurial training to schoolchildren.

Mr. Spanier's status with a Naval advisory board is also dubious. Ray Mabus, the U.S. secretary of the Navy, has recommended to Leon E. Panetta, the U.S. secretary of defense, that Mr. Spanier be removed from the Board of Advisors to the Presidents of the Naval Postgraduate School and Naval War College, a Navy spokeswoman said Monday.

Having lost the presidency, Mr. Spanier also lost a television show. Expert Opinion, a sports program on the Big Ten Network that he hosted has been canceled, a spokeswoman for the network said.

"The show will not air because he is no longer the president of Penn State," said Elizabeth Conlisk, the network's vice president for communications. "At its very simplest, it would be outdated."

There are also the purely symbolic shunnings. Administrators at Highland Park High School, the Illinois high school Mr. Spanier attended in the 1960s, decided last week to remove a photo plaque honoring Mr. Spanier's achievements, the Chicago Tribune reported.

"Our distinguished alumni need to be role models," George V. Fornero, the high school's superintendent, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the actions in this case generate a lot of questions about Mr. Spanier's involvement."

Lasting Scandal

To effectively manage this crisis, Penn State officials will have to balance their desire to turn the page with a sober acknowledgment that this scandal will probably play out for a good while to come, said Gene Grabowski, a crisis consultant who has worked with colleges and universities.

"It is important symbolically, it is important emotionally, it's important logistically that the school distance itself" from those involved, said Mr. Grabowski, a senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, LLC., "and now do something positive to help people to heal.

"It's too early for the school or any of the advisers to be thinking about how to get this behind them."

Penn State is sure to see a temporary dip in donations, and the scandal will continue to re-emerge as criminal proceedings progress and civil lawsuits are invariably filed, Mr. Grabowski said.

"This is going to be a very costly enterprise for the university," he said.

There are already indications that the damage done to Penn State's brand will have financial consequences. About a half-dozen advertisers have pulled their commercials from Penn State football broadcasts on ESPN, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The future costs for Mr. Spanier remain to be seen. As a long-serving, higher-education leader with a national profile, he looked poised to fill other leadership posts if and when he stepped down at Penn State. That picture is more complicated now.

"It's definitely more difficult for him as he looks for his next options," Ms. Parrot said. "Any organization that would think about bringing him on would have to truly think through the reaction of their members or their donors."

Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, said it is too soon to tell where Mr. Spanier can go after this, particularly since additional information about the university's response to abuse allegations could positively or negatively shift public perception of his leadership. What is clear, however, is that Mr. Spanier and Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach who was also dismissed last week, have been tarnished by the scandal.

"These are individuals who did a great deal of good," Mr. Rawlings said. "And now they've suffered ignominy, and that's hard for everyone."