July 24, 2014
This week’s New York Times Magazine has a profile of Graham Spanier, the former president of Penn State who was dismissed or fired (there are opposing claims about which) as a consequence of the revelations that Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the PSU football team, was a serial child molester. Spanier is now under indictment for failing to do more to stop Sandusky. Sandusky will be in prison the rest of his life.
In the print version the profile, by Michael Sokolove, is entitled “The Shadow of the Valley,” a reference to the Penn State campus being widely known as Happy Valley, and Spanier’s virtual house exile within this kingdom he once ruled. Sokolove mostly offers a portrait of Spanier today: once a 16-year, very successful, roundly liked and admired president, now a president laid low. (Online, the article is titled “The Trials of Graham Spanier, Penn State’s Ousted President.”) But Sokolove also raises pointedly the question of whether Spanier should be criminally prosecuted for his failure. Sokolove has quite critical things to say about the follow-up investigation of the Sandusky matter by Louis Freeh, which was commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees, and equally critical things to say about the use of that investigation by the Board, the NCAA, and the prosecutors. (Sokolove references positively the subsequent report by Dick Thornburgh that was commissioned by the Paterno family.)
The most surprising revelation is that Spanier himself was physically abused as a child: beaten repeatedly and cruelly by his father. The implication is that Spanier of all people would have done more had he even a glimmer of what Sandusky had done. Sokolove says that these beatings led Spanier to want to be apart from his father as much of every day as possible, and thus led to Spanier’s ferocious appetite for working hard.
The other wing of the case for not pursuing criminal charges against Spanier is that he was at a considerable remove from the Sandusky matter. True, he was copied on some key e-mails and true, he engaged in some conversations about how the case should be handled (all this, well before the fullness of Sandusky’s behavior was known), but (the article suggests), Spanier did as well as he could with what he knew and the time he had to devote to the matter. “The life of a university president is you have things coming at you all day long,” Spanier is quoted as saying. “It’s one crisis after another, one issue after another.”
Certainly someone in a position of responsibility at Penn State should have done much more, and much earlier. Early allegations against Sandusky were never pursued vigorously and they should have been. Every allegation of abuse or rape in a community should be actively pursued.
In the Penn State case, I suspect that Sandusky was protected by the cocoon of normalcy that leads most people most of the time to dismiss out of hand indications of predatory behavior. They simply can’t believe someone they know (someone who seems like such a regular guy) could be guilty of anything so heinous. Their eyes must be deceiving them. The rumors couldn’t be true. No one does anything because they can’t even imagine the possibility of such wrongdoing
One of the arts of leadership is to carry a double image of the people you work with. You need to simultaneously believe that the people around you are capable of much better performance than they are currently showing, AND also could be guilty of much worse behavior than you can bear imagining. Both possibilities are there all the time. It’s a burden to think that way, but you must. When there are glimmerings of evidence of the rare, horrible possibility, you must pursue them. (As someone himself abused, perhaps Spanier was not vulnerable to the cocoon of normalcy: he knew what people could do at their worst.)
Beyond the ‘cocoon of normalcy’ that leads most people to overlook predatory behavior when it is near them, I also believe that the culture of big-time athletics (especially football) at Penn State created a bias against seeing anything wrong. How could anything be wrong with the Joe Paterno-coached football program? It was the very paragon of virtue in Division One NCAA athletics. Football success allowed Penn State to prosper, but it also insulated the program from ever being scrutinized in the ways we should expect.
Spanier certainly bought into Penn State’s athletic culture. Before he became president—before he accepted those responsibilities—he had to know that the football program was beyond his ability to supervise. PSU Football had become a world unto itself even as it garnered money and reputation for the university. When Spanier became president, he accepted responsibility for what that might mean. In this case, it meant Sandusky and the lives he ruined.
Is Graham Spanier one who is responsible? I believe he certainly should have lost his position. Should he be criminally prosecuted? I don’t know enough to say whether I agree with Sokolove.
The question of whether Spanier should be prosecuted for actions he failed to take is an interesting one. Much more interesting for me is whether Penn State University and its peers among American universities can rescue themselves from the culture of big-time athletics, which steadily undermines the essential values of education and sometimes ruins lives. Also interesting is the question of how leaders can learn to see beyond the cocoon of normalcy.