What Presidents Should Tell Boards

January 19, 2012

Why was Graham Spanier fired as President of Penn State University?  I argued earlier that he was principally fired because the Penn State Trustees reached the judgment that Spanier could no longer provide effective leadership for the university, and that someone else needed to be at the helm in order for the university to deal effectively with both the immediate pedophilia crisis and with other matters.  I still stand by that. But today we’ve learned something else.

Before I turn to that something else, note that trustees could reach a judgment that ‘someone can no longer provide effective leadership’ without necessarily believing that the person in question did anything wrong, either legally or morally.  That can seem unfair, and perhaps it is, but sometimes fairness to the person in question isn’t the most important thing for trustees to consider; sometimes it is the wider welfare of the institution.

This morning’s New York Times has a long article by Pete Thamel and Mark Viera headlined “Penn State Trustees Recall Decision to Fire Paterno” (“We Just Terminated Joe Paterno” is the headline in the home delivery paper version.) The article is the first in-depth insider account of the discussions among the Penn State Trustees that led up to the firings of Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno on November 9. What the article reveals is that Spanier did not do nearly enough to keep his Trustees informed about the investigation of Jerry Sandusky in the months when a grand jury was taking testimony and preparing an indictment. (Sandusky is a former PSU assistant football coach and the alleged perpetrator of the pedophilia.)

Here’s what the Times account says: “Spanier, two other senior university administrators and Paterno had all given testimony before a criminal grand jury by late spring of 2011. They had been questioned extensively about what they had done after learning of a report in 2002 that said Sandusky had molested a young boy in the showers of the football building. According to the trustees, Spanier never informed them of any of that before Sandusky’s arrest on Nov. 5.” Not keeping your trustees well-informed about an unfolding mess is one  way to get fired.

Spanier could say (he refused to comment for the story) that he did keep the trustees informed. Later on in the article, we learn the following:

During a board meeting last May, after Spanier had testified before the grand jury, the board received a short briefing — the trustees estimated it was 5 to 10 minutes — on Sandusky’s being under investigation by a grand jury.

The briefing, which took place during a “seminar” session not open to the public, included an explanation of what a grand jury investigation was by the university counsel Cynthia Baldwin. (Baldwin had sat in on the grand jury testimony but was not legally allowed to speak to the trustees about the contents of the testimony, according to Lanny J. Davis, external counsel and crisis management adviser to the office of the Penn State president and to the board of trustees.)

The trustees this week said that they were disappointed that Spanier, who was legally allowed to speak about his grand jury testimony, did not brief the board on the nature of the questions by the grand jury about the 2002 episode.

So Spanier did tell the Board some things last May, but not enough. All the Trustees interviewed for the Times story recount feeling blindsided by the grand jury indictments:

“He should have told us a lot more,” Lubert [a trustee] said. “He should have let us know much more of the background. He was able to legally share his testimony and I think that he had an obligation to do that with the board so we could get more engaged with the problem.”  The mention of the grand jury investigation by Baldwin and Spanier was so brief that Surma [the Board’s vice chair] barely remembered it. No one asked questions.

What should you tell your board of trustees about difficult problems, when and how much? That’s a relentless question for college and university presidents.  There are lots of problems you simply want to deal with and either never tell the board about or tell them only after the fact. But you have to keep your board informed about big issues, things that could boil over in public. You can’t let them be blindsided, and that’s what Spanier did — the 5 to 10 minute May seminar notwithstanding.  And you can’t always tell in advance which problems will spin out of control.

In this case, I think you have to fault Spanier for not telling his trustees more. This case involved sexual abuse of children by a major figure at the university, and also involved a failure to investigate by the university.  Once divulged, those were likely to be huge public issues. Perhaps Spanier knew by May that the problem was so bad that he might as well not tell them — that there was nothing he could do then that would avoid a major scandal. Or perhaps Spanier believed that the grand jury would find that Penn State officials did nothing wrong.

Adding to the reasons for firing him, the article also notes the trustees were upset that Spanier immediately announced that he had full confidence in the two senior university officials indicted for perjury at the same time that Sandusky was indicted for sexual wrongdoings; and upset that Spanier rewrote (softened) a statement by the Board of Trustees after the trustees had approved it.  Once a scandal begins to unfold in public, a president needs to work extremely closely with his/her board of trustees. Going off on your own in making or revising statements will also increase your chances of being dismissed.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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