As Students Call for President's Ouster, Insiders Say Board Told Spanier to Keep Silent

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Protesters hold up signs outside Penn State’s administration building, some demanding that Graham Spanier, the university’s president, step down. One student says the president's continued silence "makes it look like he's covering stuff up."
November 09, 2011

With hundreds of students chanting for his removal outside Pennsylvania State University's main administrative building here Tuesday night, and the national news media pounding away at the university's response to allegations of heinous sex-abuse crimes by a former coach, President Graham B. Spanier remained unusually silent. For the third straight day, one of higher education's most outspoken leaders had nothing to say.

That may not be his choice, two individuals close to the administration told The Chronicle on Tuesday. He is following strict orders from the university's Board of Trustees not to talk.

Penn State Scandal: Read Complete Chronicle Coverage

"It's tearing Graham up to sit by and watch everything he's done to build up this university over nearly 17 years—and see this individual's alleged acts tear away at it," said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified because of the board's policy.

Of particular concern to the president, this person said, are questions about how much he and others in the administration knew about allegations raised in 1998 and 2002 that a former Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused boys on university property. Mr. Sandusky, who was arrested Saturday on 40 criminal counts of child sex abuse, has maintained his innocence.

Mr. Spanier has told people close to him that the first time he heard about the 1998 allegations­—which were investigated by Penn State's police department and other law-enforcement officials, but resulted in no arrest­—was last month.

As for the 2002 conversation, in which a football graduate assistant reported seeing Mr. Sandusky sodomize a young boy in the football locker room's showers late one night, "Graham believes he never had any indication of any kind that a sexual assault occurred," the source said. "He doesn't know where the breakdown was."

Mr. Spanier, whose leadership has come under fire by the board, has appeared upbeat and positive in recent days, say those who have interacted with him. He's holding staff meetings, trying to keep people focused on university business, and even met with a job prospect Monday night.

"The board has some really big decisions to make this week," said the source. "We don't know what those decisions are going to be, but we're here to fight."

A Spotlight on the Campus

Late Tuesday night and into Wednesday, scores of white TV vans lined College Avenue, as camera lenses turned on a university campus distraught over four straight days of intense, negative media attention. Students flooded into the streets. They blocked traffic while chanting support for the longtime head football coach, Joe Paterno, as packs of police officers in riot gear stood on the corners.

Earlier in the night, fans held a raucous pep rally at Mr. Paterno's house—with the 84-year-old coach ambling out to lead cheers at one point. Then students turned up by the hundreds to remember the victims of the alleged sex crimes and to express their displeasure with the administration.

"Graham's gotta go! Graham's gotta go!" shouted students gathered outside Old Main, Penn State's grand administrative building, where Mr. Spanier has an office.

One of those students, 21-year-old Stephanie Sapol, said the president's silence was only causing people to doubt him more.

"He hasn't come out with any sort of release or anything, which makes it look like he's covering stuff up," she said. "It's only fueling fires and making people support him less."

At the foot of the building's steps, with the glow of TV cameras and cellphone lights flickering under a full moon, students took turns voicing concerns and frustrations. Some talked about the media's rush to judgment. Others worried about how the events had sullied the institution's reputation. And more than one stressed the importance of honoring the victims, which the students did with two moments of silence.

At one point, students joined arms to sing the Penn State alma mater, raising their voices through a particularly poignant line: "May no act of ours bring shame."

Shadé Olasimbo, a senior from Houston, said that line—and what reportedly happened with those boys in the locker room—"does not define who we are."

"We're not ashamed to be Penn Staters right now," she said. "We know we stand for more than that."