Graham Spanier, one of the longest serving and highest-paid college presidents has resigned from the top post at Penn State University. Departing with him is Joe Paterno, the revered football coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Spanier’s resignation and Paterno’s firing came as the Penn State University Board of Trustees met Wednesday night to determine the fate of the two men in the wake of an unfolding sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of the football team who allegedly molested at least 8 boys from his Second Mile charitable organization, which he founded in the 1970s.
Earlier in the week, the Board of Trustees signaled that the two men would need to step down before the week’s end, despite Paterno’s statement that he would leave at the end of the football season. Their departures reflect the seriousness and widespread concern that neither man alerted Pennsylvania law enforcement when Sandusky’s on-campus sexual abuse of a minor was brought to their attention.
One of the eyewitnesses to the sexual abuse, Mike McQueary, now serves as an assistant coach to the Penn State football team. In 2002, McQueary went to Paterno’s home to report that he spotted Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the locker room shower the night before. McQueary described the boy as looking ten years old. Sandusky was in his late 50s at the time. Paterno directed McQueary to inform the athletic director, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance and business rather than advising him to call the police. It appears that neither Curley nor Schultz advised McQueary to talk to law enforcement. Nor did either man report the incident to police. In the end, none of the men who were informed about Sandusky’s alleged sex abuse of a child contacted police. And although Sandusky was warned not to bring boys from Second Mile back to campus, it appears he was nevertheless permitted to carry out the Second Mile summer camps in successive summers on campus.
When McQueary’s eye witness report was brought to Spanier’s attention, it is unclear what exactly he advised, if anything. What became clear in the aftermath and a source of disbelief and outrage was Spanier’s support for the manner in which the matter was handled, and his pledge of unconditional support for the two indicted former employees—Tim Curley and Gary Schultz who are charged with perjury and failure to report a crime.
If the Board of Trustees are as vigilant about protecting the school’s honor and distancing itself from the horrific events that occurred in the men’s football locker room showers where Sandusky is said to have sexually abused more than one boy, these departures will be the first and not the last steps in demonstrating contrition and urgent leadership.
By failing to “do more,” Spanier, Paterno, and the university’s former primary counsel, Wendell Courtney (an attorney with the Pennsylvania law firm McQuaide-Blasko), may have opened the university to civil liability for their failure to act to stop further harm to children. According to the grand jury report and the admission of Curley and Schultz, Spanier was also informed about a second allegation of sexual assault perpetrated by Sandusky against a little boy in the football locker room shower in 1998. In that case, Schultz testified that university police were alerted as well as “the child protection agency” with Courtney’s “blessing.” It is worth noting that the grand jury did not find Schultz’s testimony to be credible.
The public outcry that the conduct of Paterno, Spanier, and Courtney (depending on what he was apprised and when) was negligent might be shared by a jury. Indeed, the argument could be made that because Courtney served as primary counsel for the university and general counsel for Second Mile, he had a unique responsibility as a fiduciary to both organizations to have done more if the 2002 case was brought to his attention. According to the grand jury report, child protective services were not notified by the university, nor were police contacted about the 2002 sexual assault. It also becomes relevant whether Courtney’s unique stature within both organizations might have been a conflict of interest in light of Sandusky’s role and relationship to Second Mile, which he founded, served as a fundraiser, and for many years managed. As the head lawyer for Penn State, Courtney and his law firm were responsible for providing zealous and competent legal advocacy in the representation of the Board of Trustees and not the president or football team. If Courtney was aware of the sex abuse allegations against Sandusky in 1998 and 2002, especially given the seriousness of the crimes alleged and the age of the victims, were these issues brought to the attention of any or all of the Board of Trustees in 1998 or 2002? These matters are relevant, but remain unclear.
Last year, the Penn State Board of Trustees replaced its law firm and brought in former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Baldwin to serve as general counsel. Very likely, she has wisely aided the Board in its current deliberations. The Board is to be commended on their decisive action this week. But caution should also be urged, lest the public and Board of Trustees become satisfied with employment terminations alone. Firing the leadership involved with this debacle is not enough. Penn State is under a microscope, but the way in which it handles this current crisis could serve as a leadership model for other universities. More importantly this is an opportunity for Penn State to demonstrate effective and courageous leadership to the community it serves, including its students, alumni, faculty, staff and the victims of this and other heinous sexual crimes.