Criticism of Penn State’s Freeh Report is mounting with former university President Graham Spanier’s coordinated assault on it this week, but some experts who have followed the unfolding drama say Spanier’s story strains credibility.
Spanier, ousted as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal, portrayed himself as barely aware of concerns about Sandusky before last year—even though he was told in 1998 of an inconclusive criminal investigation and was part of an email discussion about allegations three years later. He said he remembered little about the email messages and that he never was told of early claims of child sexual abuse involving the former assistant football coach, whom a jury in June convicted of assaulting 10 boys.
Spanier’s attorneys explained his lack of recall by saying he received 150 to 200 emails a day. But a law professor and others said anything involving Sandusky and a criminal investigation should have been a red flag.
“If you forgot about someone of Sandusky’s status being accused of child abuse in 1998, there must be some crazy things happening at that university,” said Duquesne University law professor Wes Oliver.
Spanier did not respond to requests for comment from the Tribune-Review.
Oliver, who attended the Sandusky trial and studied the Freeh Report, said criticism of the report is not surprising. He said the report reads “like an indictment.”
Still, “I think the Freeh Report draws reasonable conclusions based on what they had,” he said.
Spanier called former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s university-commissioned report “flat-out wrong” in its assertion that he, the late Joe Paterno and administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz—two Penn State administrators awaiting trial on charges of failing to report allegations and lying to a grand jury—conspired to cover up the Sandusky allegations.
Don Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University and former director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, said Spanier’s statements don’t add up. Heller, an expert in university governance, said Spanier had a reputation for knowing everything that went on at Penn State.
“He was very involved in lots of things, particularly athletics. It just really strains credibility that he wouldn’t have been apprised of the investigation in 1998, and in 2001 wouldn’t have remembered it,” Heller said.
“Even if what (Spanier) said, that he was just told Sandusky was engaged in horseplay (in 2001) is true, he knew there had been a criminal investigation…years earlier. You don’t just ignore that,” Heller said.
Michael B. Poliakoff, who studies university governance as vice president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, also questioned Spanier’s explanations.
“Horseplay between and adult and a child in a shower would seem by itself to be a pretty serious ground for investigation,” he said, adding that Spanier seemed very concerned about it in a 2001 email to Schultz and Curley.
In the email, Spanier approved a plan to handle the complaint internally, rather than alerting authorities, but cautioned that “if the message isn’t heard and acted upon, and then we become vulnerable for not having reported it.”
Spanier’s legal advisers said he didn’t recall the language in the email, but Spanier did recall that the report he received involved “horseplay,” and that his use of the term “vulnerable” simply refers to a belief that officials would need to take further action if Sandusky didn’t heed the university’s direction.
“Even with the (1998) investigation yielding no indictment, it had to have put the university on alert,” Poliakoff said. “And in February 2001, the email trail becomes much clearer that there is a real problem. When words are used like ‘we can become vulnerable,’ that certainly is saying that people recognize the gravity of the issue.”
Poliakoff called the Sandusky saga a “terrible lesson in governance” that illustrates how events can snowball when a university president neglects to inform trustees of serious issues.
Questions about those issues threaten to continue.
Penn State Trustee Anthony Lubrano, an outspoken critic of the university’s handling of the Freeh Report, said Spanier’s critique of the report steeled his resolve to continue questioning the document and the NCAA’s use of it to fine the university $60 million and ban it from post-season football bowl games.
Lubrano said he and Trustee Alvin Clemens plan to raise the issue on Saturday when trustees meet at a retreat.
An alumni group that coalesced during the scandal cheered Spanier’s lawyers’ 18-page rebuttal of the Freeh Report and promised to issue a rebuttal of its own soon.
Poliakoff said all of this might have been derailed years ago had Spanier informed trustees of the initial allegations.
“I continue to be very, very disturbed by the findings as we have them,” he said.