The Penn State Trustees React to the Stench

The Board of Trustees acted properly in cleaning house at Penn State, by firing president Graham Spanier and longtime football coach Joe Paterno. The inaction of the duo, along with similar conduct from now-suspended Athletic Director Tim Curley and now-retired VP Gary Schultz has exposed the university to potentially massive legal liability, as well as prompting an extraordinary public relations backlash.

From all available evidence, the quartet undertook what turned out to be a disastrous gamble: that they could handle the allegations about former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in such a way that would neither risk the university’s financial well-being nor hurt Penn State’s public relations. So when they received word that Sandusky had been witnessed sexually assaulting a young boy, the four interpreted the allegations in the most benign way possible, and then swept things under the rug. By behaving as they did, they sought to protect the Penn State “brand” from the type of fallout we’ve witnessed over the past several days. Their actions were immoral, but not necessarily irrational.

Spanier, ironically, crossed the line from immoral to irrational in his only statement on the charges before his dismissal. He remarked,

“The allegations about a former coach are troubling, and it is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance."

“With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee."

“Tim Curley and Gary Schultz operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.”

It’s hard to discern what Spanier hoped to accomplish from this statement. Not only did he decline to suspend Curley, as pointed out most passionately by Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, Spanier’s use of “unconditional support” implied that he would back the two administrators even if they were found guilty. Moreover, the former president was speaking definitively about issues of which he couldn’t possibly have the requisite knowledge at this time (what did a then-graduate assistant actually say to the two administrators when he reported Sandusky’s behavior; what precisely did the two administrators say to the grand jury). It’s entirely possible that the administrators ultimately will be found not guilty of perjury, a tough charge to prove; it’s even possible, on technical grounds, that they’ll be found not guilty of a failure to report. But for Spanier to have asserted that he knew the truth at this stage was anti-intellectual, and his statement alone would have raised grave doubts about his fitness to lead a major research university.

It’s worth wondering how this story might have played out differently had the de facto (Paterno) and de jure (Spanier) leaders of Penn State responded to the announcement of the charges in the way Penn State’s trustees did on Tuesday night—with a forceful condemnation of Sandusky’s alleged acts and a promise of a comprehensive investigation to find out what went wrong—and then again on Wednesday evening, with a remarkably composed and impressive press conference from BOT vice chairman John Surma.

Instead, Paterno less-than-credibly remarked that he was shocked about the charges, and Spanier offered his amateur legal analysis while downplaying the alleged crimes as merely “troubling.” Both statements created the impression that even after the charges were revealed, the leadership of Penn State lacked any understanding of the gravity of the situation.

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Over the past few days, quite a few reporters and commentators have referenced the Duke lacrosse case in commenting on events at Penn State, if only as a reminder of the presumption of innocence and the dangers of a rush to judgment. To quote ESPN’s Dana O’Neill, “If the Duke lacrosse case has taught us anything, we don't know what we don't know.” And, as any longtime reader of Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work knows, it’s particularly important to demand evidence—rather than wild allegations—when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse against children.

But apart from the fact that the Penn State scandal doesn’t involve some of the other key lessons of the lacrosse case (flawed legal procedures beget flawed results; race/class/gender advocates who dominate most humanities departments care little about due process or impartially evaluating evidence if upholding these ideals might frustrate their on-campus aims), what we know of events at Penn State suggests a very different kind of case than at Duke.

The two most important differences:

First, unlike the Durham Police and disgraced ex-prosecutor Mike Nifong, the authorities in Pennsylvania actually investigated the charges, producing a detailed grand jury report. (Nifong and the DPD, on the other hand, simply accepted whatever story false accuser Crystal Mangum wanted to float to keep the story alive.) Moreover, in at least two instances, there were witnesses to Sandusky’s alleged acts. Again, no such witnesses ever existed in the lacrosse case. And so while it’s obviously premature to speak of guilt or innocence, the prosecution certainly can’t be faulted for a failure to conduct a thorough investigation, or for engaging in the type of horrific abuses of the legal system that Rabinowitz detailed in No Crueler Tyrannies.

Second, the charges against Curley and Schultz—and the possible charges against Spanier—don’t depend on whether Sandusky is guilty or innocent. Perhaps this is all a grand conspiracy against Sandusky, or a massive misunderstanding, and he’s actually innocent. Regardless of the coach’s guilt or innocence, however, the university officials had an obligation to report the charges to police; and, in the case of Curley and Schultz, to tell the truth to the grand jury.

The academy is notoriously accountability-challenged: Richard Brodhead, after all, is still running Duke. But, even in a profession that tends to circle the wagons rather than acknowledge outside criticism, Spanier had to go. That the trustees acted boldly and quickly represents about the first good decision made by the Penn State administration in this affair.

[Updated to reflect developments that occurred after the initial post was published.]

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

3 thoughts on “The Penn State Trustees React to the Stench

  1. The writer does not deal in any facts. He bases his whole argument on speculation. He does not know any of the people involved and is reacting to the media frenzy in forming a lynch party. Hopefully the author is never falsely accused of something, because paybacks can be a b—-. Although I doubt anyone will ever accuse him of being a good writer or someone who fully investigates a story before throwing huge stones at several respected community and university leaders.

  2. The Board of Trustees at Penn State are NOT at fault. I do believe, however, that the Sports Department is at fault. When a child’s well being is at stake, they should move heaven and earth if they have to to help that child. Period.

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