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Former Penn State President Graham Spanier on the Campbell Conversations

Graham Spanier is the former president of Penn State University
via Zoom
Graham Spanier is the former president of Penn State University

As president of Penn State University in 2011, Graham Spanier found himself at the center of a very high profile and complicated sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. Spanier was ultimately engulfed in the scandal, convicted of a misdemeanor for his role in the scandal, and served two months in prison. This week, Spanier speaks with Grant Reeher about the scandal and its lingering impact. Spanier's book is called 'In the Lions' Den: The Penn State Scandal and a Rush to Judgment.'

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today was at the center of a very high profile and very complicated scandal and fallout. I will try to summarize it quickly as best as I can. Graham Spanier was president of Penn State University when the accusations of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky first came to public light. Soon thereafter, President Spanier resigned his position following a university-funded investigation by a firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, which found Spanier and others at fault in the university's response. And then an investigation by the state attorney general's office. Spanier was charged with multiple counts related to the scandal and was ultimately found guilty of one count of child endangerment and served two months in jail. However, significant portions of the Freeh investigation were criticized by two subsequent investigations. Spanier sued Freeh for defamation, as well as the university. There's more to this story, but let me leave it there. Graham Spanier has now published a book based on his experiences and his reflections about this case titled “In the Lions’ Den: The Penn State Scandal and a Rush to Judgment.” Professor Spanier, welcome to the program.

Graham Spanier: Thank you very much for having me.

GR: We appreciate you making the time. So let me just start with a very basic question, sort of walk our listeners through some of the beginnings of this. When did you first learn about the accusations of Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse?

GS: Just a few days before Sandusky was charged in 2011, I learned from the university's general counsel that he was going to be indicted, along with two members of the Penn State administration. I wasn't pulled into that until a year later, but that was the first we heard. And of course, it put the university into a scramble mode to find out what was happening, how to deal with it, how it might impact the university. Sandusky had not been employed by the university for several years, so we didn't really see it as a Penn State matter, except for the fact that two members of my administration were being charged at the same time with perjury for their testimony before the grand jury and failure to report.

GR: Okay. And then after this came to light to you, what was the first thing that you did?

GS: The first thing I did was to call two emergency meetings with members of the board of trustees. I also brought members of my cabinet in to tell them that this was unfolding and how I was going to handle it. I knew from sixteen years as president of dealing with our athletic director and our senior vice president, that they had done nothing wrong and that it was my duty, as a matter of honesty and integrity, to support them and to relay to the public that we were going to stand behind them. I ended up being criticized for doing that, but my feeling was if you know people and you know the truth, you really need to stand up for them. We all had one recollection of an incident in a shower a decade before that, that I had received just a few minutes of a heads-up report about, but nothing was reported that was sexual or criminal or abusive in any way. And that was just a very vague recollection from a long time before. And that was really all we knew at that time. And what was being alleged in the grand jury presentment, the indictment that came out did not match with any of the information that I had.

GR: So there will, I'm sure, be people listening to this program who will be thinking that given how long at least according to the accusations, how long Sandusky's abuse had occurred there at the university, that someone in a position of authority, perhaps including you, must have known that something serious was not right there. Can you just try to briefly convince those listeners otherwise?

GS: Oh, sure. That which you just described, was the prevailing immediate and prevailing media narrative that came out at the time, because there was a sensationalized presentment from the grand jury that prosecutors had written, and everyone believed that that must be right. And then when Louis Freeh got involved, as you mentioned, his report reinforced that. But the truth was that the people who fingers were being pointed at Joe Paterno, the legendary great football coach, and the members of the administration, had absolutely no knowledge that Jerry Sandusky was abusing children. People in his charity, the Second Mile, that he had founded in 1977 may or may not have known something. And that's where this was all connected, not at the university, but it all of a sudden became a Penn State story. A Penn State football story. It really didn't bear any resemblance to the people I knew and know. It's very clear if people would read my book, which is, well documented and well-resourced and is very evidence-based, that nobody in the Penn State administration knew or had any reason to know about what you just suggested, people in the public may very well have concluded.

GR: Now, from the point when you had those emergency meetings with the trustees about the situation, what was the nature of the communications between you and the board? What was the focus of the conversation, if you can remember?

GS: Well, the first thing I needed to do was to let the board know what was unfolding and to tell them everything I knew about it, as well as to give them the facts of what we knew and didn't know historically and at that present time. I also knew that television trucks and reporters and large numbers were converging on the campus because this was going to increasingly be a story about Penn State, not about Jerry Sandusky or the Second Mile charity. And I think that was in part because Joe Paterno was the winningest football coach of all time. He was legendary. And Penn State athletics had a reputation of never being involved in an NCAA violation. We have a huge amount of information in the book about the historical athletic culture at Penn State, how we operated. But, you know, in the area of sports, there is an unlimited appetite for news and hype. And that's what we saw unfolding on the campus. So my responsibility at that time was to inform members of my governing board and my cabinet and to do my best to get out in front of it. Unfortunately, the board of trustee’s leadership said, you know what, this is a big deal for us and we're going to handle it. So they basically put kind of a gag order on me and Joe Paterno saying, we don't want you getting out in front of this. We don't want you talking about this. We're going to handle it. But guess what? They didn't handle it very well and everything got worse.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State University at the time of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the author of a new book about that scandal titled “In the Lions’ Den: The Penn State Scandal and a Rush to Judgment.” So, as I mentioned at the outset, you resigned. Perhaps it's better to say you were forced to resign. I don't know. But you resigned. And then one of the endorsements for the book that you've just written, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jerry Kammer, describes you as, quote, “collateral damage” in this scandal. And I wanted to ask you about that because one might think that given the heinous, really unspeakable nature of the accusations against Jerry Sandusky and he was convicted of those, I I'm sure that the worry over brand annihilation on the part of the trustees for Penn State, couldn't your termination sort of be seen as necessary collateral damage when something like that happens? You know, you just know that everybody up the line is going to have to go, right?

GS: Well, yes, I think that's a very typical corporate approach to handling a crisis. You say, okay, we're sorry, we're guilty. Bad things happened. You bring in lawyers and public relations consultants. You bring in someone like Louis Freeh to do an outside investigation. And you get rid of all of the people at the top and declare you're moving on. But universities are not like corporations. You can't just worry about the bottom line at the end of the quarter. Penn State has the largest alumni association in the world, and we have 700,000 alumni of this university, and that is a label they wear for life. So you can't just try to wash your hands of the bad publicity and think it will go away. Alumni and students have long memories, and at a university, that's not necessarily the best way to handle the situation. The other thing I would say that you referenced is to point out that while Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts. He was found not guilty on the one incident at Penn State. That was from that one shower that some individuals heard about but heard nothing sexual or illegal or criminal about. He was found not guilty on that particular matter, yet it still continued to be a Penn State story. And yes, it hurt the reputation of the university. It certainly hurt the reputations of all of us involved, the NCAA and the Big Ten, they took away Joe Paterno's wins. They fined the university. They lodged all kinds of penalties. But guess what? By the time this all worked its way through the courts, the NCAA backed off on everything and subsequently did not come after other universities. Were there allegations that were much more serious than what came about at Penn State? And that includes Syracuse. It includes Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, USC, UCLA, Columbia. At Penn State, the worst thing people were talking about was this one incident that some claim was known about and not reported as sexual abuse, but that that was it. We didn't know about anything else. And at the time we heard about somebody being uncomfortable with a shower incident, we actually did report that to the head of the Second Mile. And there were conversations with Jerry Sandusky about it. So we thought we handled that one thing responsibly. We're talking about more than two decades ago now, but this thing got way out of control. The board of trustees in giving me this gag order resulted in my saying, “if I can't handle this, then the right thing for me to do is to step down.” So, no, I was not forced to resign. I thought I was being very gracious, magnanimous by proceeding in that way.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and my guest is Graham Spanier. He was president of Penn State when the story of Jerry Sandusky broke. And he has now written a book about that scandal titled “In the Lions’ Den: The Penn State Scandal and a Rush to Judgment.” Well, Professor Spanier, I want to focus the questions now a little bit more on you and your experience after this. When did you first know that there was going to be a criminal charge element for you in the fallout over this?

GS: I would say the first I knew was moments before I was charged, a year after this all unfolded, investigators in the attorney general's office interviewed hundreds of people to try and find if there was anything, anything at all they could possibly use to come after me. And they did so after a full year, just three days before the election of a new attorney general who was way ahead in the polls and who had run on a platform of straightening all of this out, knowing that what was unfolding and what had unfolded was unfair to someone like me. But they got the university's general counsel, who was my attorney, who had represented me earlier, to go before the grand jury in violation of attorney-client privilege. And she was not truthful on the witness stand, and they used her testimony to indict me. Now, all of the charges, based on her testimony, were eventually thrown out, seen as completely improper. So the attorney general had to then invent some other charges to bring even years later. A couple of things that are important to know, however, are that there was an independent federal investigation conducted in 2012 at the same time as Louis Freeh's investigation and the attorney general's investigation. And I was completely exonerated and and vindicated by that federal investigation. You might ask, why was there a federal investigation in parallel? Because I had the lead role for American higher education in national security matters. I worked with the FBI, with the Department of Defense intelligence agencies in a number of capacities. I served on the National Counterintelligence Working Group as a civilian. I was on the board of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Naval War College. So I had top secret and above security clearances. It's been in the news lately. What these clearances are. I had SCI level clearances and therefore I was every so often had to go through a review of my security clearance and the SCI clearances required a polygraph. I was completely cleared in that federal investigation. But the attorney general in Pennsylvania and Louis Freeh not only did not want to read the results of that investigation, they hurried their’s out before it could even be made available to them, because I had promised to share it with them and they just didn't want to see it because it did not fit their narrative.

GR: So so let me ask you a quick question on this, and I want to move on to other things. But the way you're telling that story, it brings up in my mind the Duke lacrosse scandal and what we ultimately learned about what was motivating the D.A. in that instance. And do you think this was something similar for this state's attorney? It sounds like…

GS: Yes it was. In fact, one of the first calls I got within maybe 24 hours was from the president of Duke, who was a good colleague of mine, saying “Graham, there could be more here that you need to pay attention to and maybe I can be helpful to you. And, you know, can I put you in touch with some folks?” So, yeah, books have been written now about what went wrong. And my book and other books that will be coming out will reveal what was wrong with what Pennsylvania attorney generals did. There were about six of them involved in this. And the prosecutors, there are three chapters in my book about Louis Freeh and what went wrong with with what he did. So, you know, that media narrative that was out there right away in November of 2011 and continued for the next couple of years was way off base. And that has now been demonstrated, as you pointed out earlier in your introduction, that the Freeh report has totally been disparaged by lots of people by this federal investigation, by the Penn State Board, the alumni of the Penn State board of trustees who did their own investigation, and by Richard Thornburgh, the former attorney general of the United States and former governor of Pennsylvania, who did his own independent review and concluded that this was a rush to injustice, which is related to the subtitle of my book.

GR: So I want to squeeze a few more questions in, and we've got about seven or eight minutes or so. But let me just ask this one first. Am I correct in understanding that you are still, even though you were convicted of this one misdemeanor charge, that you are still fighting that in some way, is that true?

GS: No. I was offered a plea bargain on several different occasions, five, as I recall. And each time they were almost begging me to plead guilty to the lowest level misdemeanor. And I said, that is not within my value system. I can't plead guilty to something I'm innocent of. I would rather go to jail for something I didn't do than to claim that I'm guilty of something. So I did spend two months incarcerated and then two months under house arrest, and that is over now. So yeah, it's behind me. And my lawyers wouldn't let me release this book for years because they didn't want me to have the impression that I was interfering with the legal system or trying to influence a judge. But finally, they said, okay, you're done. You can publish it now.

GR: All right. That answers my question about the timing so I won't ask that one. So let me ask you this, tough question, but if you could try to summarize it, what's the impact that this has had on your family and on you?

GS: Oh, the impact has been devastating in many ways, to me, my family, friends, thousands of Penn State alumni who have rallied to my support behind me. It was tough. And I talk in the book very candidly about what this does to someone, to know you did nothing wrong and you've always operated with honesty and integrity and made good decisions and did the right thing. And to have a judicial system which is broken in many ways, gang up on you and in an unrelenting fashion, despite tremendous evidence and testimony that you are not really guilty of anything. Get behind this locomotive that picks up steam and that everybody jumps on and they feel they have to just keep going with it for whether it's for financial gain, for political reason, people running for office, people who declared you guilty early on and know darn well the kind of person you are and what you really stand for. But. But keep pressing anyway. It's really tough.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is former Penn State President Graham Spanier. I understand you've had some health issues in recent years. Do you think that's related to the stress of all this?

GS: It's hard to tell. I had open heart surgery to have my aortic valve replaced. That had been ganging up on me for many, many years. I had prostate cancer and it's now metastasized. Some people believe that stress contributes to that. I don't think so. But there's no question that this takes its toll on you and in your mental health and in other ways and in your physical health. Absolutely, there is some connection. And one of the absurdities of all of this is that the attorney general demanded that I be incarcerated even at the height of COVID and while recovering from open heart surgery and having cancer at a time when he argued in court on behalf of the governor that anybody who had a nonviolent first-time misdemeanor and was of no risk at the height of COVID should not be incarcerated. But he made an exception in my case.

GR: Well, we've only got a couple of minutes left. I want to ask you a few questions. You've already talked a little bit about this, but some of the impact on Penn State and the universities in general. Do you think this scandal has had an impact on what other universities and university presidents do and how they approach their role? And has this had a shadow?

GS: Oh, absolutely. I think there's a much greater degree of compliance with something known as the Cleary Act, where universities now are just out there reporting every incident as quickly as possible. I think there's a much greater degree of vigilance in universities. There are lots of presidents who have lost their job over the slightest hint that anything happened on their campus, even though they might say they didn't know about it or they were not involved. So I think yeah universities are very vigilant, and it's not a bad thing to be vigilant because there is sexual abuse, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment. These are real things in our society and in our universities. But as I say in my book, we should be living in a society that has the courage and the vigilance and the ability to go after people who have actually committed crimes without throwing under the bus, people who are not guilty just because they were around the edges of something.

GR: Just got about a minute and a little bit more left. But I definitely want to squeeze these last two questions. And if you could be super brief on the first one to give you more time for the second one. How long do you think it's going to be before Penn State is no longer associated with this scandal? How many years are we talking?

GS: I think some progress has been made and we're beyond that in some ways. But it will never go away entirely. And I regret that very much because the university did not deserve to have this happen to its reputation.

GR: And then finally, if you could rewind the clock and go back to the first time that you were made aware of the accusations toward Jerry Sandusky, what would you do differently? Was there anything you could do that would have maybe changed some of the things that happened to you or the narrative that got generated?

GS: Well, based upon what we knew at the time, there wasn't much that we would have thought of to do differently because we thought we were being very, very vigilant in dealing with it. But now, 20 years later, in hindsight, knowing what has unfolded, we would have raised it to a higher level of intervention early on. It would have just taken another phone call or a report of some kind. Nowadays, yeah, you would make every report you could think of, even at a hint of something that wasn't even in your mind or that wasn't reported. But just to be sure, just to be sure, in the current environment, the level of vigilance and intervention would probably be even greater.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Graham Spanier. Again, his book is titled “In the Lions’ Den: The Penn State Scandal and a Rush to Judgment.” Professor Spanier, thanks for making the time to talk with me.

GS: Happy to be on your show. Thank you for having me.

GR: You bet. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.