Leadership & Governance

Spanier’s Conviction Highlights Lessons of Sandusky Scandal

March 24, 2017

Gene J. Puskar, AP Images
The verdict in Graham Spanier’s trial brought with it fresh reminders of the Penn State child-molestation scandal, but it also offered higher-education officials a chance to reflect on what might be learned from how the university handled the problem.

The guilty verdict in the trial of Graham B. Spanier marked a milestone in the long-running tale of misery at Pennsylvania State University. Mr. Spanier served as president of the university for 16 years, until revelations of child sexual abuse involving the former football coach Jerry Sandusky blew up his career and dealt a powerful blow to the institution’s reputation.

A Pennsylvania jury on Friday found Mr. Spanier guilty on one misdemeanor count of child endangerment, while finding him not guilty on another count of endangerment and a count of criminal conspiracy. Though the verdict brought with it fresh reminders of the scandal and threatened to reopen old wounds, it also offered higher-education officials across the country a chance to reflect on how Penn State handled its problems and what others might learn from that.

"University officials will be relieved that yet another chapter in this seemingly unending crisis is closing," said Zach Olsen, president of Infinite Global, a crisis-communications firm that works with colleges and other institutions facing legal challenges or other highly publicized controversies.

The university said in a written statement that the verdict in Mr. Spanier’s trial brought some "closure" to the scandal, which has cost the university about a quarter of a billion dollars in fines, legal costs and settlements.

Looking back at the scope of the situation, higher-education experts said it was clear just how poorly Penn State officials reacted to the events as they unfolded.

"There's no dispute that this was mishandled," said Dan Schorr, who looks at sexual-misconduct and Title IX cases for Kroll, a risk-management and consulting company.

Until recently, Mr. Schorr said, it was not common for universities to vigorously investigate their leadership or popular figures on campus, such as football coaches. The fallout from the Penn State scandal has made it clear that not only should universities quickly undertake such investigations, but also that inquiries need to be independent from the people being investigated and not managed by the campus's president.

Daniel H. Sharphorn, vice chancellor and general counsel for the University of Texas system, said no official at the university can be above reproach from such serious allegations.

"Even a hint, however slight, remote, or incredible of such gross misconduct in one's institution must be carefully and rigorously pursued to find the facts and reach a firm conclusion," he said in an email.

Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said the Penn State situation didn't change how he viewed the importance of good governance. Instead, he said, it reinforced the consequences of a poor relationship between the trustees and the president. Presidents need to have a trusting and transparent relationship with trustees in order to bring difficult situations to their attention, Mr. Legon said.

In addition, he said, everyone on the board needs to be well-informed; there can't be a group of insiders who try to manage the most sensitive issues.

Erin A. Hennessy, vice president at TVP Communications, said the Penn State scandal didn't change practices in crisis communications, but it underscored the importance of clear and honest public information from a college's administration.

"There are real and weighty consequences both for our institutions and for our leaders when they are not truthful, accountable, and transparent," she said in an email.

That need to communicate early may conflict with the more cautious approach of the college's lawyer, she said, but the court of public opinion won't be waiting for the legal outcomes.

"Counsel often advises against early and open communication in order to protect the institution from vulnerabilities," she said. But colleges "open themselves to a whole new set of vulnerabilities if they delay communication."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.