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Spanier's fall hard for many to believe

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By Debra Erdley and Adam Smeltz
Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

Last fall, Graham Spanier stood at the apex of American public higher education.

As president of Penn State for 16 years, he was among the longest-serving presidents of any major American university. His wife, Sandra, headed Penn State's prestigious Hemingway Letters Project.

Spanier collected nearly $200,000 a year as a member of the board of U.S. Steel Corp., on top of more than $800,000 a year from Penn State.

Over the years, he chaired a group from the nation's top research universities and served as chairman of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board and on the National Counterintelligence Working Group.

Now as Spanier, 64, faces charges in what prosecutors are calling a conspiracy of silence that allowed Jerry Sandusky to prey on children, some are taking another look at his tenure.

Spanier, who conducted a whirlwind media tour in August proclaiming his innocence of wrongdoing, did not respond to requests for comment.

David Saxe, a professor in Penn State's College of Education since 1990, said Spanier notched many notable achievements, including the creation of centers and opportunities for students. He steered Penn State's acquisition of the Dickinson School of Law and nurtured the university's far-flung campuses into four-year degree institutions.

“For his friends, my God, it was a wonderful place,” Saxe said.

But Saxe said there was another side to the president who donned the school mascot's costume and performed magic tricks.

“He was extremely powerful here at Penn State. Everything deferred to him. ... His decision-making was very closed. I've been waiting for this day for a long time — a very, very long time — that someone would call him to account,” Saxe said.

Ben Novak, a Penn State trustee from 1988-2000, said Spanier's management style was very much top-down. He routinely kept trustees in the dark, Novak said.

Even so, Novak said he finds the charges against Spanier hard to believe.

“I was one of his greatest critics, but in regard to this matter, I don't believe Graham Spanier would have stepped back if he thought anything wrong was going on with Jerry Sandusky,” Novak said.

Born in South Africa and raised outside Chicago, Spanier was educated as a sociologist and family therapist before going into college administration.

Since his removal as president, Spanier's attorneys have said he worked for the federal government in a security-related role and retained a top-secret security clearance. He remained a tenured professor at Penn State.

Retired federal Judge Timothy Lewis, a member of Spanier's legal team, said the charges are unfounded.

“There is no factual basis to support these charges, which may explain why the attorney general and her staff have steadfastly refused — for a full year — to meet with Dr. Spanier or his lawyers to discuss this matter despite repeated attempts to do so, or to accept Dr. Spanier's offer to appear before the grand jury again to clarify any misconceptions,” Lewis said.

Debra Erdley and Adam Smeltz are staff writersfor Trib Total Media. Erdley can be reached at412-320-7996 or Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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