Let Me Tell You A Story About Graham Spanier

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Let me tell you a story about Graham Spanier.

I was a member of the Board of Trustees back in 1995 when the Power Group of the Board announced that they had picked him to be Penn State’s next president. The announcement came, as I recall, on a Monday, and the media treated it as a “done deal” that the rest of the Board would officially rubber-stamp at Friday’s meeting. I wrote about this in my Reflections of a Former Trustee: How the Penn State Board of Trustee Really Functions, where I describe how we were expected to vote without even meeting the man.

But by 1995, I had been on the Board for several years, and had become disillusioned by the Power Group that ran the Board. So, I did my research. From my philosophy-of-higher-education point of view, I found that there was a lot not to like about Spanier’s approach to University governance, and at first I resolved to vote against him.

But there was one more thing to check. There had been some hot-button controversies at the University of Nebraska involving Spanier. One quite vociferous opponent was extremely critical of some of his policies. So, I called this man. In our conversation, he was just as critical of some of Spanier’s positions as in the press clippings I had read. But when I asked him about Spaner’s role in leading and developing the University, the man had nothing but praise. When it came to building up the campus, including academic departments, colleges, and programs, his supposedly worst enemy said he did a great job.

So, I ended up voting for his confirmation as president of Penn State. Yep, I still disagreed with some of Spanier’s philosophy of education, and subsequently had many occasions to oppose—quite vociferously—some of his policies. For example, I opposed the Village at Penn State, and spent several hours arguing with Steve Garban and Graham Spanier about the unfeasibility of the Research Park (although I ended up voting for it in despair). But that came later. At the time of his appointment, Penn State was at a point in its development that what his worst enemy had praised was exactly what was needed.

I often thought of this conversation over the sixteen years (1995-2011) of Spanier’s presidency. He certainly lived up to his opponent’s description. Spanier oversaw the consolidation of Penn State’s growth. According to every metric—buildings, improvement of the campus, new colleges, new programs, new outreach—Spanier led every part of the University in transforming to meet new needs, take on new challenges, and reach new heights of excellence. The presidency of Graham Spanier is truly one of the high points in Penn State developmental history.

The true measure of Spanier’s accomplishment, however, lies in how the academic and research sides of University weathered the Sandusky scandal. I don’t think that anyone will disagree that this was the worst scandal to hit any university in the history of higher education. Barely a day or a week has gone by for the past six years without the media dragging Penn State’s reputation in the mud. Any other university would have been crushed.

Yet, throughout this period, what Graham Spanier built at Penn State Penn State was hardly scratched. Measure it by any metric you like—applications for admission; faculty accomplishments; attraction of new outstanding faculty; research funding; growth of new colleges and outreach; new buildings; new programs; the list goes on—every one of these shows phenomenal growth and success. What Graham Spanier built has not only endured the worst that could be thrown at it, but prospered through it all.

There are those who argue that the crisis that hit Penn State in 2011 was exacerbated by Spanier’s management style, and there may be some truth in that. So, please don’t get me wrong. I still disagree with Spanier on a whole host of issues. “But facts,” as we used to say in Central Pennsylvania, “is facts”—and “the facts is”: When a metaphorical earthquake hit the University, eliminating most of its top leadership, the foundation built up by Graham Spanier—especially Penn State’s academic reputation—weathered the storm and stood strong.

Having said all that, I would be remiss if I did not also address the recent trial of Graham Spanier. One thing is settled: there was no conspiracy. The Attorney General dismissed all charges of conspiracy against Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, and the jury found Spanier not guilty of those charges, too. Simply put, there never was a conspiracy among the top officers of Penn State to cover up Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. Tell Louis Freeh and the media to stuff it: their conspiracy theories are dead in the water.

The jury found Spanier guilty of one misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of a child. It was not for anything Spanier did, it was for something he didn’t do: he didn’t realize that Jerry Sandusky was a pedophile. Back in 2011, Joe Paterno spoke for all Penn Staters when he said, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” Paterno was convicted in the media, and Graham Spanier was convicted in court, for not having “hindsight”—that is all. I do not believe for one instant that either Paterno or Spanier would have consciously or deliberately endangered the welfare of any child.

I pray that Spanier’s conviction will be reversed on appeal. Regardless of how the appeal works out, the whole Sandusky saga is a sad ending for a man whose career was otherwise so successful.

But for Penn Staters, the saga doesn’t end there. We have a duty to those who have helped us, and who contributed to Penn State’s enduring greatness. Graham Spanier made a major contribution to all that Penn State is today. So, when you see him around campus or downtown, stop and greet him the same way we greet our Vets—especially those who have been through combat—by smiling and saying, “Thank you, Mr. President, for your service to Penn State.”


Ben Novak served as an elected alumni member of the Penn State Board of Trustees from 1988-2001. He is presently retired and lives in Florida.

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