A longtime university president indicted on criminal charges associated with allegations of covering up child sexual assaults that occurred on campus?
It’s unheard of in American higher education, at least to the knowledge of several national higher education experts.
None of those reached Thursday could think of anything more serious than a college president getting popped for a DUI.
Sure, there have been scandals. But none that resulted in anything parallel to the charges facing former Penn State President Graham Spanier.
Spanier has been charged with perjury, obstruction, criminal conspiracy and failure to report suspected child abuse charges. Spanier adamantly maintains his innocence.
Still, despite the historic nature of Thursday’s indictment of Spanier, it came as no surprise to many. Those in national higher education circles expected that the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case eventually would lead prosecutors to charge Spanier.
Nonetheless, it made for a sad day in many ways, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education.
For Sandusky’s victims, it was a reminder that they allegedly were let down by university administrators’ possible inaction. And it was a blow to Penn Staters who see their university’s name and reputation get another stain, Hartle said.
“We’re so used to thinking of American higher education as places of learning and liberty, and not used to thinking of them as places where really bad things happen because of incredibly poor judgment, and I think that’s what it is here,” Hartle said.
“It’s just a sad day for American higher education,” he added.
A former Penn State professor sees the potential for the situation to be even more damaging if Spanier and the other two senior administrators—Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, who now face the same charges as Spanier—are convicted.
If that happens, “It’s really going to paint a picture that shows the leadership of the university was involved in the cover-up and actively took part in it,” said Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education and former director of Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education.
He and others remarked that this diminishes Penn State’s appeal possibly to students, donors and prospective employees, particularly the coveted top-tier research faculty.
“They are going to look twice before they accept an offer from Penn State. It doesn’t mean they won’t do it, but I’ve got to think it weighs at least in part in their consideration of an offer,” said Martin Snyder, interim executive director of the American Association of University Professors.
Larry Backer, chairman of Penn State’s Faculty Senate, said he hopes that is not the case. He said faculty and employees work hard to make Penn State an enriching place for students to study, and the indictment of its former leader should not overshadow that.
“It is a reminder, though, that we are all still dealing, now in the courts of justice, with the consequences of the revelations of last November,” Backer said.
Hartle said the aftermath of those revelations likely will hang over the university for a decade while it resolves the criminal and civil cases resulting from the Sandusky conviction. Only then will Penn State have closure, he said.
Others said the indictment teaches a lesson that all college governing boards should heed.
“It is a story of what happens when the men and women who control the university—namely, the trustees—assume the role of booster and put reputation first, delegating their legal responsibility to the administrators rather than offering the independent oversight they alone can bring,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“Graham Spanier needed a board to protect him from himself, and they failed miserably, allowing a culture of silence to put children at risk,” she said.
But others noted Penn State’s leaders have been pro-active in making governance changes to prevent anything such as this scandal from happening again.
As Backer said, “The indictment serves to remind us that this work is still not done.”