Chronicle of Higher Education: Behind An Ex-President, A Band of Loyalists
Behind an Ex-President, a Band of Loyalists
Graham Spanier, former president of Pennsylvania State U.
By Jack Stripling
Even the banished have their company.
Graham B. Spanier saw his towering reputation as Pennsylvania State University’s president left in tatters in the wake of a sex-abuse scandal, and many of his old allies have faded away. But a few people are gathering in the corner of this ousted administrator, who is fighting to clear his name in court and to rehabilitate his image in public.
More than 20 months have passed since Mr. Spanier was charged with what prosecutors call a conspiracy to cover up the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach who was convicted, in 2012, on 45 counts related to child molestation. With Mr. Spanier’s criminal trial looming, a loose affiliation of lawyers, trustees, professors, investigative bloggers, and a high-profile public-relations executive have formed a protective circle around the former president.
Mr. Spanier’s allies are pushing back against a popular narrative that they say unfairly casts him as a callous campus chief who was willing to overlook Mr. Sandusky’s crimes in the interest of protecting Penn State’s reputation. That emotional argument, born of public outrage, is simply not supported by the evidence, Mr. Spanier’s backers say.
"We have become a Rorschach test," said John S. Nichols, a professor emeritus of communications and international affairs at Penn State who argues that the criminal case against Mr. Spanier is weak. "People ascribe what happened here according to what they want to see, as opposed to what the hard facts are."
The charges against Mr. Spanier include failing to report a crime, obstructing justice, perjury, conspiracy, and endangering the welfare of children. Five of the eight counts are third-degree felonies, each punishable by up to seven years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
No trial date has been set, and Mr. Spanier's lawyers are fighting to have the case dismissed. They argue that the state's case hinges on testimony from Penn State's former general counsel, Cynthia A. Baldwin, whom they say violated attorney-client privilege. Ms. Baldwin divulged details to the grand jury about her deliberations with Mr. Spanier and two other university officials who are also charged with conspiracy.
Since he was forced out as Penn State’s president, in late 2011, Mr. Spanier has mostly maintained a low profile. The once media-friendly administrator has rarely granted interviews. So it was all the more striking when, last month, The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Mr. Spanier that ran more than 7,000 words and relied upon "many hours of conversation" with the former president.
To the great pleasure of Mr. Spanier’s supporters, the magazine piece hung on this thesis: "The case against Spanier is at best problematic, at worst fatally flawed."
The story takes to task a report written by Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director, commissioned by Penn State’s trustees to investigate the abuse scandal. Mr. Freeh concluded that Mr. Spanier had shown a "total disregard for the safety and welfare" of children.
The report used that same foul brush to paint Timothy M. Curley, the university’s former athletic director, Gary C. Schultz, a former senior vice president, and the late Joe Paterno, Penn State’s revered football coach. Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz also face criminal charges, including conspiracy, to which they have pleaded not guilty.
The Freeh report has been the subject of frequent critiques. Key witnesses were not interviewed, and some readers were left wanting when elements of a conspiracy were explained by squishy references to Penn State’s "culture." But these grievances have seldom been given a platform as lofty as The New York Times.
Matthew J. Hiltzik, a crisis manager to celebrities, is the man running Mr. Spanier’s public-relations operation. Mr. Hiltzik is known for cleaning up messes for the rich and famous, including Justin Bieber and Alec Baldwin.
As president and chief executive of Hiltzik Strategies in Manhattan, Mr. Hiltzik has carved out a specialty in the world of college sports controversies. He has, for example, been a spokesman for Manti Te’o, the former University of Notre Dame football player who said he was dupedinto believing that his fake online girlfriend was real.
Mr. Hiltzik declined an interview request from The Chronicle, and he did not make Mr. Spanier available for this article.
The Sandusky scandal sent Mr. Spanier into a downward spiral, according to what he told The Times and some of his allies. He said that he became depressed, couldn’t sleep, and lost 25 pounds. During those dark days, he placed a call to Albert L. Lord, a wealthy donor to Penn State and a graduate of the university.
"His world kind of fell apart," Mr. Lord told The Chronicle.
Mr. Spanier might have felt some kinship with Mr. Lord, who has also spent time in the cross hairs of public opinion. In his years as chief executive of Sallie Mae, the student-lending giant, Mr. Lord was criticized for earning tens of millions of dollars in compensation and zealously buying up his competitors.
"He saw my career as a little bit rough and tumble and thought maybe I could give him some good advice," Mr. Lord said.
Specifically, Mr. Spanier wanted to know if he should sue Mr. Freeh for defamation. Mr. Lord, who is now a Penn State trustee, told Mr. Spanier to go for it. Moreover, the former Sallie Mae chief said he would use his largess to help pay for the case, which he expects could cost north of $1-million.
Mr. Spanier has initiated the defamation lawsuit, and Mr. Lord said that a few other benefactors are also financing the case.
"I am far and away the dominant cash man," Mr. Lord said.
In his final year as president, when Mr. Spanier earned $2.9-million, he was the highest-paid public college leader in the nation.
But he has had a lot of help paying for the fallout from the Sandusky matter. Mr. Spanier is considered an indemnified employee of Penn State, which is a distinction that requires the university to cover legal fees associated with his criminal case. Penn State has spent $8.6-million so far on lawyers for employees caught up in the abuse scandal, but university officials would not say what portion has been for Mr. Spanier.
As he awaits trial, Mr. Spanier has found time to scrutinize the smaller details of how Penn State is managing its reputation, and by extension his own. Anthony P. Lubrano, a Penn State trustee and supporter of the former president, said he received an email recently from Mr. Spanier, who had read something he did not like. Penn State’s chief ethics and compliance officer, whose position was created after the Sandusky fallout, is slated to speak next month to a business group, in Omaha. His talk had been titled "It Hit the Fan, Now What?" Mr. Lubrano said. Mr. Spanier did not approve of the tone, and he sent the program to the trustee.
"My immediate reaction was, 'If we aren't changing the narrative ourselves, no one will,'" said Mr. Lubrano, who voiced his concerns to Regis W. Becker, the ethics officer.
The Business Ethics Alliance, at the urging of the university, has since altered the online description of its luncheon.
The Sandusky scandal has called into question Mr. Spanier’s fundamental judgment and character, and his defenders say it is not always easy to stand by a man who has so many tough critics.
Gary J. Gray, a visiting professor of finance at Penn State, has known Mr. Spanier for years. The two once ran with the bulls together in Pamplona, and Mr. Gray says he cannot square what is being said about his friend with the man he knows. But "a lot of people," Mr. Gray said, have advised him to "take a backseat" and to stop speaking out on Mr. Spanier’s behalf. That is doubly true for Mr. Sandusky, whose guilt Mr. Gray says he questions as well.
"If you take a position that you are pro Graham, or pro Tim or pro Schultz or pro Sandusky, you’re all child-molester types. There’s not a whole lot of things in between," said Mr. Gray, a former Penn State linebacker.
The Freeh report contained private emails that cast Mr. Spanier in a particularly unfavorable light. The most damning, sent by Mr. Spanier in 2001, came after Mike McQueary, a football graduate assistant, reported having seen Mr. Sandusky in a locker room shower with a boy. Mr. McQueary has testified that he told Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz that he saw something "extremely sexual."
Mr. Spanier has testified he was told only that Mr. Sandusky had been "horsing around" with the boy.
In the 2001 email, Mr. Spanier agreed with Mr. Curley, who was disinclined to report the incident to authorities. Instead, the athletic director suggested that the best course of action was to tell Mr. Sandusky to seek professional help for his "problem," and to "work with him" on how best to discuss the issue with Second Mile, the children’s charity Mr. Sandusky started.
"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," Mr. Spanier wrote. "The approach you outline is humane and a reasonable way to proceed."
To support Graham Spanier is to believe, as he says, that he wrote that email never having heard that an athletics staff member witnessed anything of a sexual nature in that locker room. To support Graham Spanier is also to believe, as he contends, that he knew nothing of another previous incident, in 1998, when campus police received a report that Mr. Sandusky had showered with an 11-year-old boy in the Lasch Football Building.
The question of Mr. Spanier's criminal culpability rests substantially on how his administration handled the allegations brought forward by Mr. McQueary, whose veracity as a witness has come under the scrutiny of Mr. Spanier's allies. In Mr. Sandusky's trial, the jury found the former assistant coach "not guilty" on just three of 48 counts. One of those crimes was the rape of "Victim 2," whom Mr. McQueary identified.
Raymond M. Blehar, a government analyst with a keen interest in the case, sees plenty of inconsistencies in Mr. McQueary's story. The analyst has concluded that the case against Mr. Spanier and his colleagues has been trumped up to take the focus off a broken child-welfare system in Pennsylvania.
"The real tragic stuff here, where kids are getting abused, is not getting fixed," said Mr. Blehar, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from Penn State.
Mr. Blehar’s website, march4truth .com, is filled with dense reports alleging cover-ups and mistakes. His work has not gone unnoticed by Mr. Spanier, who invited Mr. Blehar to breakfast last fall at the Original Waffle Shop in State College.
Mr. Blehar has Penn State ties, but he says he is not doing this work to vindicate university officials.
"I will burn Penn State to the ground if I find Penn State was involved," he said. "But I don’t think the three administrators or Paterno were the people in the know."
Even if that assertion turns out to be true, much damage has already been done. Mr. Nichols, the Penn State professor emeritus, said he has a bittersweet expectation that Mr. Spanier and his colleagues will be vindicated in the eyes of the law but not necessarily in the eyes of the world.
"Irrespective of what a jury decides, the cloud will still hang there," he said. "That's sad. That's really sad."
Albert L. Lord, a Penn State trustee and former chief executive of Sallie Mae, the student-lending giant. Mr. Lord is lending financial help to Mr. Spanier's legal case.
Anthony P. Lubrano, a Penn State trustee who is suing the NCAA over harsh sanctions the agency imposed on the university after the Sandusky scandal.
Gary J. Gray, a visiting professor of finance at Penn State and close friend of Mr. Spanier’s.
John S. Nichols, a Penn State professor emeritus of communications and former chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national sports-reform group.
Raymond M. Blehar and Eileen P. Morgan, an investigative duo whose website "March for Truth" contains detailed reports arguing that Mr. Spanier and others have been scapegoated.
Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a nonprofit organization that says there's a "complete lack of evidence" against Mr. Spanier and others.
Elizabeth K. Ainslie, Mr. Spanier’s top lawyer and a former federal prosecutor.
Timothy K. Lewis, a former federal appeals-court judge who serves on Mr. Spanier’s defense team.
Matthew J. Hiltzik, a New York-based public-relations consultant who handles press inquiries for Mr. Spanier. Mr. Hiltzik, a crisis-communications expert, has also represented Alec Baldwin, Glenn Beck, and Justin Bieber.
Correction (8/11/2014, 12:10 p.m.): This article originally misspelled the last name of a government analyst with an interest in Mr. Spanier's case. His name is Raymond Blehar, not Raymond Belhar. The text has been corrected.