HARRISBURG, Pa. — Former Penn State University President Graham Spanier's defense against accusations that he covered up sex abuse allegations runs contrary to his own reputation as a detail-oriented manager.
But experts in university governance suggest that if Spanier truly didn't know what was going on, then he showed a willful ignorance and a disturbing lack of curiosity about a scandal that stood to ruin Penn State's reputation.
In interviews this week and at a press conference, Spanier and his lawyers portrayed him as somewhat on the sidelines, completely unaware that complaints about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky were serious enough to warrant much more than passing attention.
The governance experts acknowledge that the job of university president requires dealing with a continual stream of problems, but they are raising doubts that Spanier took a less-than-active role in investigating the scandal that engulfed two of his top lieutenants and longtime head football coach Joe Paterno.
“You can say ‘I didn't know.' You can say ‘I was distracted.' You can say ‘They didn't tell me' — up to a point,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, who spent three decades as president at the University of Hartford and George Washington University.
“But from what we have heard about what transpired, his vice president, his director of athletics, his coaches allegedly were concealing this bad news from him for such an extensive period of time that I find the story implausible,” Trachtenberg said.
Spanier, who was chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln until he left in 1995 for his dream job at Penn State, said he had no recollection of email traffic involving a 1998 police investigation of Sandusky, triggered by a woman's complaints that Sandusky had showered with her son. He also told the New Yorker magazine he had little memory of a 2001 complaint about Sandusky in a team shower with a boy, and that a follow-up meeting on the topic was wedged into his schedule during a busy time.
Spanier has not been charged with any crime. Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz, who reported to Spanier on the matters, are expected to go to trial in January on charges they lied to a grand jury about the Sandusky scandal and did not properly report the 2001 accusation to authorities.
Spanier told ABC News that the 2001 case was characterized as only “horseplay.” But even that should have raised red flags, said Mary Gray, an American University math and statistics professor with expertise in university governance.
“If he was told that, I would think, if I was the university president, I would ask ‘What do you mean by horsing around?'” said Gray. “He should have assigned somebody to look into this in more detail and get back to him.”
Two years ago, Curley, Schultz and Paterno were summoned to testify before a grand jury. In his account to the New Yorker, Spanier suggested that he asked few questions about the topic.
“I cannot imagine not having — what? — shall we say the curiosity to want to know what the devil is going on and to be sure the university's interests are protected,” Trachtenberg said. “It shows to me, at minimum, a gross lack of curiosity — sort of almost a willful ignorance.”
Penn State geography professor Brett Yarnal, chairman-elect of the school's faculty senate, said Spanier's description of his reaction to news of the grand jury struck him as disingenuous.
“I read that,” Yarnal said, “and thought ‘Now, come on, Graham. If you hear the junior VPs and your football coach are called before a grand jury, you're not going to show some sort of curiosity about what's going on here? I don't care how busy you are.'”