Guillermo: Ex-Penn State President’s Conviction a Teachable Moment

Updated Mar 27, 2017

On Friday, Graham Spanier, the former Penn State University president was convicted by a jury in Pennsylvania of a single count of child endangerment in connection to covering up a 2001 case involving disgraced coach Jerry Sandusky.

Graham SpanierGraham Spanier

The good news was a charge of conspiracy was dropped, as was a second misdemeanor of child endangerment.

There was no piling on. Spanier still faces five years in prison. His lawyer says there will be an appeal.

But this is a meaningful juncture, as it allows all of you in higher ed to formally learn the Spanier lesson, akin to maybe something the Catholic Church should have learned a long time ago.

When it comes to sexual abuse, or anything sexual that smacks of criminality, you report it to police. You don’t cover it up. You don’t think of the institution you represent first.

The obligation is to the people involved. An alleged perp(s). Or the victim(s).

And then you think of the people of your community and state, and turn over what you know to those trained to find the truth and deliver justice.

That’s not exactly what Spanier and two of his top administrators  did in 2001 when they heard a complaint by graduate coaching assistant Mike McQueary, who said he saw coach Jerry Sandusky molest a boy in a team shower.

Instead of reporting it immediately, Spanier, along with his athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz engaged in a debate over notes and e-mails over what to do.

Both Curley and Schultz were allowed to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor child endangerment count  But the prosecution used them and their communications to  make the case against Spanier.  The administrators said they wanted to inform the state Department of Welfare, but  Spanier nixed the idea.

“The only downside for us is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier told Curley and Schultz in a 2001 email. He even thought the plan was a “humane and reasonable way to proceed.”

Maybe. But not if you were the victim.

In their defense, Spanier, Curley and Schultz all denied they were told the shower incident was sexual in nature.

But was that reason not to report McQueary’s claim to police or welfare authorities?

Spanier learned that not reporting such matters comes at a real price. It’s not the university’s role to supercede the law.

The bad publicity Spanier feared has now come back to haunt in massively.

For not acting in 2001, Sandusky was allowed to continue his evil ways until he was arrested in 2011. The arrest caused the  major scandal resulting in the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno.

Sandusky is currently serving a sentence of 10-30 years for abusing 10 boys.

Penn State has paid mightily too: More than $90 million to settle claims by over 30 accusers; and fines of $48 million by the NCAA. Not to mention a perpetual cloud that hangs over the football team once led by the iconic Paterno.

“The verdict, their words and pleas indicate a profound failure of leadership,” Penn State said in a statement. “And while we cannot undo the past, we have re-dedicated ourselves and our university to act always with the highest integrity, in affirming the shared values of our community.”

Who knows how many emails it took to come up with that perfectly official PR statement.

We’ll have to see by its actions, if Penn State finally learned its lesson.

But the jury has spoken. Spanier was wrong thinking of PR first, protecting the institution, and not the people it serves.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He writes for the civil rights organization AALDEF at http://www.aaldef.org/blog