As Penn State University president, Graham Spanier would spend move-in weekend bunking in the freshman dorms, and last year he met the fate of every student who arrives a little too late: the dreaded top bunk.
"As a resident of a top bunk, I can report that college men never have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, whereas those of us over 50 do," Spanier, 64, quipped on his Facebook page after the weekend stay. "Negotiating that ladder in the dark can be a challenge."
That annual routine fit the personality of the charismatic leader who could build a billion-dollar endowment and still play washboard in a local band and perform magic acts for students. It galvanized his reputation as a president who appeared more comfortable among the students than towering above them.
But colleagues and critics say the Spanier they encountered in the board room didn't always resemble the affable college president who would don the Nittany Lion suit to fill in as college mascot.
That closed-door Spanier, they say, was a controlling boss who steamrolled those who opposed him, faced off with the governor over subsidies, and kept his own board of trustees in the dark about allegations of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's on-campus shower incidents with young boys.
It's that Spanier, according to former FBI Director Louis Freeh's investigation into Penn State's handling of the allegations, who led the university down a path to scandal, shame and unprecedented NCAA sanctions.
It's also that Spanier who told the board last week in an eight-page letter that he intends to fight the Freeh Report's conclusions, which he labeled "egregious" and "inaccurate."
There's little question that since Spanier resigned last year as the Sandusky sex scandal unfolded, the sterling image he carried as president of the nation's fifth-largest university has been tarnished.
Though Spanier has not been charged, state Attorney General Linda Kelly said the grand jury investigation into the scandal is "active and ongoing," even as Spanier fights to preserve his reputation.
Four days after Sandusky was charged with dozens of counts of child sexual abuse, the board accepted Spanier's resignation and fired football coach Joe Paterno, who had led the team for more than four decades. Spanier and Paterno were not charged, but Athletic Director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, retired vice president for finance and business, await trial on charges of failure to report suspected abuse, and perjury regarding their testimony to a grand jury investigating the allegations against Sandusky.
In the days leading up to his resignation, Spanier appeared confident in his ability to manage the crisis, pledging his "unconditional support" for Curley and Schultz, a remark his critics would later use against him. And he didn't hide. Even as a media circus converged on State College, he met with students at the local Starbucks and played racquetball at the campus fitness center.
Whether Spanier believed he could control the tempest or failed to see it brewing is unclear. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Last month, Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 victims between 1994 and 2009. Paterno, who was also blamed in the Freeh Report for his inaction, died in January.
The storm that erupted eight months ago in State College intensified last week when current President Rodney Erickson ordered a statue of Paterno removed from outside Beaver Stadium and the NCAA punished the university with a $60 million penalty, a four-year bowl games ban and the vacating of the team's 112 victories since 1998, the year the first allegation against Sandusky surfaced.
The Freeh Report, released July 13, pinned much of the blame on Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz, concluding they could have stopped Sandusky years ago but chose instead to preserve the university's image. According to the report, all knew that assistant coach Mike McQueary had seen Sandusky behaving inappropriately with a boy in a locker room shower in 2001.
"They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child who Sandusky assaulted in the Lasch Building in 2001," the report says.
Spanier "failed in his duties as president," it concludes, by not informing the board of trustees about the allegations.
Spanier issued a letter last week denying he covered up Sandusky's abuse and requesting an opportunity to meet with the board to explain himself. The Freeh Report has it wrong, he says in the letter. He didn't know Sandusky's shower with a young boy involved anything more than "horsing around."
The man who once ran with the bulls in Pamplona has no intention of backing down to Freeh, according to Peter Vaira, Spanier's Philadelphia lawyer.
"At no time during my presidency did anyone ever report to me that Jerry Sandusky was observed abusing a child or youth or engaged in a sexual act with a child or youth," Spanier wrote. "This conclusion should have been abundantly clear to Mr. Freeh and his colleagues who interviewed me for five hours before their report was finished and interrogated scores of employees about me. Yet the report is full of factual errors and jumps to conclusions that are untrue and unwarranted.
"Had I known then what we now know about Jerry Sandusky," he added, "I would have strongly and immediately intervened."
POOR AND ABUSED
Graham Basil Spanier was born in South Africa in 1948, several years after his Jewish father fled Nazi Germany. With the racial segregation of apartheid being installed in South Africa that year, his family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where his father unloaded trucks while his mother stayed at home to take care of Spanier and his two siblings.
Struggling to put food on the table, the family relied on income from the enterprising Spanier. He started a lawn-mowing business at age 12 and by the time he was 17, he worked several jobs that included late-night pizza chef.
As a child he was persistently beaten by his now-deceased father, so much so that as an adult he has twice had his "boxer's nose" surgically repaired to allow him to breathe better, his attorney said.
Spanier saw education as a way out of poverty and his difficult upbringing. He earned almost a year's worth of college credits in high school, graduated from Iowa State in three years and had a master's degree by the time he was 22. When he arrived at Penn State in 1973, he was an assistant professor of human development and sociology at just 24 and by age 30 he was associate dean of PSU's College of Health and Human Services.
By the time he left Penn State to become an administrator at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1982, he was a respected family sociologist and therapist who had done extensive research about family structure, including studies on divorce, child development and mate-swapping.
Later, as chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he cemented his reputation as an uncommonly approachable academic leader. Starting there in 1991 on Halloween, Spanier marked his arrival by wearing a gorilla suit to his first meeting with administrators.
He would go on to revamp Nebraska's undergraduate curriculum, raise admission standards and expand the honors programs. By the time he left four years later, the school's spending on research and development topped $100 million for the first time. And he showed he wasn't afraid of controversy. Long before it was politically popular, he shook off the criticism of conservative school donors and wrote a letter to Congress urging members to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
He quickly made his mark when he returned to Penn State in 1995 as president. He shocked the media by making his $250,000 salary public. He was often seen playing his washboard at local haunts as a member of the Deacons of Dixieland band. And he occasionally subbed as the famed Nittany Lions mascot.
Perhaps more important to Penn State's alumni was Spanier's $1 billion capital campaign that has helped transform the campus.
By the time Spanier stepped down last year, Penn State was on to a $2 billion campaign, its endowment fund had reached a record $1.83 billion and it was listed as one of the top public universities in the country.
"He's a hugely charismatic figure who turned a very good regional university into an international powerhouse," said Penn State Faculty Senate President Larry Backer, a Dickinson School of Law professor. "But that requires a force of character that tends to create friends who will defend him to their death and foes who felt trampled by him. I'd say Graham Spanier has an equal number of both."
David Jones, a former trustee who left the board in June after 15 years, has been in both camps.
"Graham deserves great credit for transforming Penn State into a world-class university," he said. "It was in light of those great accomplishments that the board gave him considerable latitude."
Evidence of Spanier's time at the helm is everywhere on campus. He spearheaded the building of several new residence halls, a new chemistry and life sciences building and new buildings for the School of Forestry and Penn State Arboretum, the College of Business Administration and the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
Perhaps his most visible achievement is the $60 million Information Sciences and Technology building, built in 2004 to bolster the department Spanier started soon after he arrived.
Sandy Deveney, a Penn State alumnus, said he clashed with Spanier's vision when he and his fraternity got in the president's way -- literally. Phi Delta Theta was perhaps Penn State's most visible fraternity house, its century-old, three-story brick structure sitting at the main campus entrance off Route 322 -- right in front of the glass and steel IST building.
When the fraternity lost its charter in 2007 for alcohol violations, the university sued to seize the house, citing a clause in the 1905 deed that said if the charter was lost, the house's ownership would revert to the university. Deveney and his brothers fought, and after a judge determined the house could not be seized, the university in 2010 agreed to pay $1.75 million for it.
"We knew he'd get what he wanted," Deveney said of Spanier. "He always did, but we gave him a pretty good fight. We hit his wallet."
Within a few weeks of the sale, the university demolished the frat house -- on a wall was scrawled "Graham Spanier kills kittens." The quarter-acre lot is now a picturesque park with benches, walkways and landscaping accenting the IST complex.
PATERNO'S DARK SIDE
Vicky Triponey, the former Penn State vice president of student affairs, said she became Spanier's foe in 2007 when she recommended suspensions for football players involved in a brawl at a party. Instead, Spanier took Paterno's recommendation that the players do community service. No players missed games.
"Well, Vicky, you are one of a handful of people, four or five people, who have seen the dark side of Joe Paterno. We're going to have to do something about it," Triponey told CNN she recalled Spanier saying. "Doing something about it ended with me being gone."
For much of his tenure, Spanier was an admired figure among lawmakers, often entertaining them in the president's box at Beaver Stadium. But in recent years, his star dimmed as some legislators tired of his frequent pleas for more funding while he continued to fly his university-chartered plane and the school seemed to be having little trouble raising $2 billion from private donors.
"There were some who thought that when he was in Harrisburg, he was condescending," said state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre. "He appeared before committees with no notes and no assistance. When he came to Harrisburg, he was always asking for something, and that rubbed some people the wrong way."
Spanier's swagger was on display in early 2011 when he clashed with Gov. Tom Corbett over the Republican's proposed deep cuts in state funding to Penn State and other state-related universities. The school was bearing "the Nittany Lion's share" of the reductions in order to close a then $4.1 billion state budget deficit, Spanier said, publicly chastising Corbett.
Corbett, a Penn State trustee, recently acknowledged his prickly relationship with Spanier, telling reporters the university president "wasn't exactly pleased with my first budget and he kind of let the world know that."
The Freeh Report seems to focus on the ambitious, ever-confident Spanier that Deveney, Triponey and Corbett encountered. The same board members who routinely sang Spanier's praises in 2007 as they approved a new multiyear contract that paid him more than $800,000 a year in salary and benefits were admitting that maybe he was given too much power.
The 267-page report suggests that Spanier enjoyed an unusual level of autonomy.
"Mr. Spanier resisted the board's attempt to have more transparency," Freeh told reporters. "In fact, around the time that Mr. Sandusky, Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz were arrested, Mr. Spanier was unwilling to give the board any more information about what was going on than what he was providing to the public."
A trustee who was not named in the report told Freeh's investigators the board may have let Spanier "float too freely" because "he felt he could fix anything."
Jones, the former trustee, said Spanier never repaid the board's trust.
"In the end, he let the board down," he said.
The scandal ended his presidency at Penn State and marred his reputation -- he's lost several honorary positions and even Highland Park High School in Illinois, which Spanier attended in the 1960s, has removed a plaque honoring his achievements -- but it has not ended his career, Vaira said.
Though he's on paid sabbatical until next spring, Spanier remains a tenured faculty member at Penn State, where his wife, Sandra, also teaches, in the English Department. And he has been traveling to universities across the nation to advise them on bettering their academic programs, Vaira said.
In addition, Spanier says he has a high-level security clearance for work with a "government intelligence agency" that is so secretive he can't share details, Vaira said. Now he'd like a chance to repair his reputation.
"My reputation has been profoundly damaged," Spanier wrote in his July 23 letter to trustees. "In light of my 26 years of service to Penn State, my contributions as president for more than 16 years, and my continuing service even after I left the presidency, I would ask to have an audience with representatives of the board to answer any questions you might have."
Spanier doesn't know whether he will get to make his defense before the Penn State trustees, or be forced to do it before a jury.
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