With Sex-Abuse Scandal, Crises Are Multiplying at Penn State

Gene Puskar/Associated Press

Penn State's president, Graham B. Spanier (left), and head football coach, Joe Paterno, are facing scrutiny over how they responded to at least one allegation, raised in 2002, that a former coach abused a boy in a university locker room. The former coach, Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys before and after his retirement in 1999.
November 08, 2011

The child sex-assault scandal at Pennsylvania State University brings with it a mix of crises that seldom hit an institution all at once.

Each new element of the story, which has played out since sex-abuse charges were filed against a former Penn State football coach on Friday, raises broader questions about the moral responsibilities of administrators, the legal risks of granting former employees continued access to a campus, and the challenges of repairing the image of an institution that has been dealt a hefty public-relations blow.

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Jerry Sandusky, retired Nittany Lions defensive coordinator, has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys, one of whom he is said to have sodomized in a university locker room several years after retiring.

In the widening scandal, two top Penn State officials surrendered Monday on charges of perjury and failing to report child-abuse allegations to authorities. While not implicated legally, Penn State's storied football coach, Joe Paterno, and system president, Graham B. Spanier, are also facing scrutiny for how they responded­—or didn't respond­­—to the allegations.

Mr. Sandusky, who is widely credited for his role in some of Penn State's greatest gridiron successes, had continued access to the campus after his 1999 retirement, the state's police commissioner and attorney general said at a news conference here Monday.

It is not uncommon for longtime athletics officials to continue to have formal or ceremonial roles at a college after retirement, and the allegations against Mr. Sandusky, who has maintained his innocence, suggest there are "some significant risks" to granting former employees unfettered access to locker rooms and other quasi-private areas of the campus, said Ann H. Franke, who consults with colleges nationally on issues of risk management.

Penn State's campus police were informed in 1998, while Mr. Sandusky was still an employee, that the football coach had showered with an 11-year-old boy in a locker room, according to the grand jury report released last week. But it was not until 2002, after a witness reported seeing Mr. Sandusky assaulting a boy in a football-facility shower, that Penn State officials said they revoked the then-former coach's locker-room keys.

The access Penn State appears to have granted Mr. Sandusky breaks with protocols often followed in other areas on campuses, Ms. Franke said. It is standard, for instance, for a university to cut off the computer access of information-technology personnel once they leave the institution. The same precautions should be taken with a former coach, she said.

"It's one thing to give a round of applause on game day or to give them a special spot in the tailgating area," Ms. Franke said. "But when you get into more restricted areas and restricted activities, you run the risk that they will continue to act as 'Big Man on Campus.'"

John A. Roush, president of Centre College and a former assistant football coach at Miami University, said it is part of the culture, particularly at powerhouse sports colleges, for former coaches and athletic directors to "hang about."

"Quite honestly, if I were in charge of such an operation, I would work hard to not do that," Mr. Roush said. "I don't think it's healthy. These are people who are not under anyone's supervision. They are not accountable. It creates a situation where something really unfortunate like this can happen."

Failure to Report

Timothy M. Curley, Penn State's athletic director, and Gary C. Schultz, interim senior vice president for finance and business, have been charged with lying to the grand jury and with failing to report the allegations of suspected child abuse to proper authorities when they learned of them. Both have denied wrongdoing.

Mr. Spanier solidly pledged his "unconditional support" to the two administrators in a statement Saturday, but Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz both stepped down Monday. Mr. Curley asked to be placed on administrative leave so "he can devote the time needed to defend himself" against the allegations, and Mr. Schultz plans to return to retirement, the university announced.

When Mr. Paterno was informed of the alleged 2002 sexual assault, he contacted Mr. Curley, the grand-jury report states. Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz then met with the witness, who has been identified in news reports as Mike McQueary, a former football graduate assistant, who is now a wide receiver coach and recruiting coordinator at Penn State.

Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz failed to report the alleged assault to law-enforcement or child-protective services, the grand-jury report states.

"Their inaction, likely, allowed a child predator to continue to victimize children for many, many years," Linda L. Kelly, the Pennsylvania attorney general, said in the news conference here.

Ms. Kelly said Mr. Paterno was not a target of the continuing criminal investigation, but she would not comment on whether Mr. Spanier, who also testified to the grand jury, might face charges.

In his 16 years as Penn State's president, Mr. Spanier has enjoyed widespread popularity with faculty, alumni, and students, several professors and students said on Monday. Yet that support appears to be fraying.

"People have a lot of concern about how this was handled by the administration," said Donald E. Heller, a senior scientist at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State. "What we've read doesn't paint the senior administration of the university in a very good light."

Rodney Hughes, a Penn State Ph.D. candidate who has served on the university's Board of Trustees the past three years, said the values that the university's athletic department espouses—its motto is "Success with Honor," and it is the rare major-college program to have never committed a major NCAA violation—have been called into question. "'Success with honor' may be the creed," he said, "but these events require some retelling of that story."

A Center With 'an Unfortunate Name'

Mr. Schultz retired in 2009 but recently returned to Penn State in an interim capacity. While Mr. Schultz is now returning to retirement, his legacy at Penn State, where he was first a student, is carved in stone. Just last year, the university applauded his service by naming a child-care center in his honor. The Gary Schultz Child Care Center at Hort Woods provides full-time care for children between six weeks and five years of age.

Linda M. Duerr, the center's director of education, said she could not comment Monday when asked about whether the center would retain its name in light of the scandal. A statement from the university on the matter is forthcoming, she said.

Many of the center's staff are employed by Penn State, but the facility is managed by Hildebrandt Learning Centers, which runs 40 such facilities. Tim O'Shea, Hildebrandt's chief development officer, said any name change would be at the discretion of the university.

"The poor center is just bearing the unfortunate name," he said. "It's out of Hildebrandt's hands."

Having a child-care center named for an administrator charged with inaction in a child sex-assault case adds fuel to a public-relations crisis that has besieged Penn State in the last several days. Relatively speaking, however, this piece of the crisis is easily resolved, said Robert Hartsook, a fund-raising consultant who works with colleges and other nonprofit organizations. While it is premature to make any change before the legal process has run its course, Penn State officials should acknowledge a review is forthcoming, he said.

It would be fitting to note that "this individual, while a longtime employee, is tied to something that we find inappropriate, and we at least have to consider removing the name," said Mr. Hartsook, chairman of Hartsook Companies.

'Culture' Under Scrutiny

More than any one individual, the culture of Pennsylvania State University has found itself on trial in recent days. Fairly or not, the story as told in the grand-jury report smacks of a flat-footed response from administrators who sat on troubling and embarrassing allegations. While the media frenzy is no doubt fueled by the story's connection to a high-profile coach at a tradition-rich program, state officials were at pains Monday to suggest the case represents deep-seated failures across the institution.

"This is not a case about football. This is not a case about universities. This is a case about children that have had their innocence stolen and a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others," said State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan.

Ronald A. Smith, professor emeritus of sports history at Penn State, said the university is particularly invested in portraying itself as a "pristine institution." Anything that interferes with that narrative, he said, is likely to be hidden.

"The more important it is, the more likely there will be a cover-up," said Mr. Smith, author of Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (University of Illinois Press, 2011).

"I'm not very proud of Penn State and how it reacted to this. I'm pretty disappointed, and so are a whole lot of people."

Correction (11/9, 11:50 a.m.): This article originally mischaracterized a 2002 incident in which a witness said he had seen Mr. Sandusky assaulting a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower. Mr. Sandusky was not seen "having sex" with the boy, language that implies consent a minor is unable to give. According to the grand jury's report on the case, the boy was "subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky." The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Jack Stripling reported from Washington and Brad Wolverton from Harrisburg, Pa.