food for thought from/re graham spanier

The below comes from my colleague Philip Cohen. (Spanier was president of Penn State from 1995 until yesterday):

Excerpts from Graham Spanier’s article: “Higher Education Administration: One Sociologist’s View,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 295-300,

I truly believe that it is something like athletic accomplishment. To be really good you must want to do it, be willing to make the sacrifice, put in the hours of preparation, and stick with it against sometimes great odds. But apart from such commitment, only some will move to positions at the highest level, because some basic personal characteristics must be there to begin with and they are not easily learned. The most dedicated athlete may simply not make the cut. Similarly, some faculty just aren’t cut out for administration, despite a keen interest in it.

Continued involvement in the profession doesn’t have to focus on the collection of original data. It can entail involvement in association leadership positions, an occasional book review, an essay of the sort that an “elder statesman” might write, and teaching a course from time to time. Such involvement is also good insurance. Administrative positions have always been vulnerable, and are increasingly so. Academics must preserve the opportunity to return to a productive role as a faculty member, not just the right to return to a tenured position.

My plea is not that administrators should have thick skins. Rather, one needs perspective. One must be prepared to feel bad, be able to survive it, and then bounce back quickly-very quickly-and get everything back on track. If you can’t handle the occasional attack, don’t subject yourself to it. (On the other hand, if this happens a lot you are probably doing something wrong and shouldn’t be in the job in the first place.)

Don’t accept an administrative position unless you are prepared to make every decision in relation to what is best for the institution. You should have your own agenda, of course, but every decision must be weighed in relation to the good of the university. The easy decision is often one that is not best for the department, college, or university in the long run. If you can’t make that tough decision, don’t take the job.

Administrators who are fearful of the consequences of a controversial or difficult decision often make the choice that is not in the best interests of the institution. Realism and compromise find their way into most tough situations, but above all, be committed to integrity and principle.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

6 thoughts on “food for thought from/re graham spanier”

  1. Looking at these excerpts, one thing jumped out at me: “Don’t accept an administrative position unless you are prepared to make every decision in relation to what is best for the institution.” Really? There is no higher cause to be served by an administrator (at a public university, no less)? I don’t agree.

    Before I even remembered Spanier was a sociologist, I was appalled by his immediate statement of support for the administrators who neglected to alert authorities in the Sandusky case.

    To get an un-media-filtered view, I have just finished reading the Grand Jury report (available here:

    Spanier’s part in the report is small, but very bad. About being told about a shower “incident” in 2002 (in which a graduate assistant reported seeing Sandusky raping boy in the shower), Spanier stuck to the story that the assistant never said what was really going on. From the report:

    “Spanier described it as ‘Jerry Sandusky in the football building locker area in the shower [] with a younger child and that they were horsing around in the shower.’ … Spanier denied that it was reported to him as an incident that was sexual in nature and acknowledged that Curley and Schultz had not indicated any plan to report the matter to any law enforcement authority, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare or any appropriate county child protective services agency.”

    “Horsing around in the shower” with a “younger child” — not reported to be “sexual in nature”?

    According to the report, PA law requires that if a staff member reports suspected child abuse, “the person in charge of the school or institution has the responsibility and legal obligation to report” it to the state. I don’t know what Spanier isn’t being charged.


  2. So he screwed up big time and went for expediency and cover up instead of doing what he should, but I’m not sure what he wrote is inconsistent with doing the right thing. Consider this other quotation: “Administrators who are fearful of the consequences of a controversial or difficult decision often make the choice that is not in the best interests of the institution. Realism and compromise find their way into most tough situations, but above all, be committed to integrity and principle.”

    If you think that being committed to integrity and principle is important, you might be able to intervene in a very difficult situation. But the lesson is that giving lip service to integrity and principle is a lot different from acting on integrity and principle in the face of serious costs for doing so.

    Resisting the easy path is actually hard, and readers who are so sure they always do the right thing might want to check their own memories of how they acted when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing, where there would be significant cost to oneself from trying to stop the wrongdoing. I do think you ought to step up in these situations, but in general the people who do step up have experiences and training in standing up for principle in the face of risk and personal cost for doing it. And some people who step up get slapped down.


    1. I agree with Philip, I was appalled when Spanier expressed support for the administrators. I would have though that someone serving more than fifteen years as a state institution president in a politically unsettled state could figure out a far better course of action, like maybe keeping his mouth shut.

      I also want to put a fair amount of blame on the trustees for how disastrous this has become. They were absent for almost a week, then made a seemingly hasty decision (only those on the board would know for sure if it was, but it sure seemed that way), and then to handle it with no thought to the potential consequences. Letting people know at night without police notification? Of everyone, the board seems the most clueless to me; perhaps it is because they are used to running corporations, not educating young adults.

      I think that this was a system-level failure that resulted in tragic consequences for many young children. I hope that the reform at the university extends beyond the football field.


    2. olderwoman: Your point that there are sometimes costs for making difficult decisions is well taken, but I still find your response that Spanier’s actions were “not inconsistent with doing the right thing” irksome. In case you are unaware, in 2002 when Curley and Schultz (the two administrators now facing perjury charges) relayed whatever they heard about the shower incident from Paterno, Spanier approved a ban on Sandusky from bringing children on campus, a ban that was not enforced meaningfully, as Sandusky still conducted football camps on PSU campuses and took children on road trips to PSU Bowl Games. There are suggestions that the most gory details were suppressed up the chain of command from McQueary (the initial eyewitness who is puzzlingly still employed as a coach) to Paterno to Schultz/Curley to Spanier. Still, Spanier had to have approved sanctioning Sandusky for a reason, and his immediate and strident defense of Curley and Schultz suggests that he knew that his choices had tied his fate to theirs. As president, this attempt at self-preservation was the university’s official response to the Grand Jury allegations until Spanier’s ouster as well.

      As more details continue to be revealed, it’s possible that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg at this point. Spanier’s expedient, lazy and/or self-preserving decisions seem to have extended prior to this past weekend. As an administrator, you are compensated well to make hard decisions, some of which may come with political baggage. In cases involving issues serious as those at PSU, making these difficult decisions is a moral imperative and at worst, an occupational hazard of possessing responsibility. Spanier’s choices and actions were absolutely inconsistent with “doing the right thing.”

      As it turns out, Spanier rightfully walked the plank anyways. So, these “easy” decisions turned out to be terrible professional choices for him and PSU as well.


  3. queries2k: you misunderstand me, sorry I was unclear. It is the QUOTATION–the specific sentence in the passage quoted by Andrew that I quoted–that is not inconsistent with doing the right thing. The ACTIONS were all wrong.

    My point is that Spanier said a right thing– integrity and principles matter– but did a wrong thing anyway.

    Then I was trying to make the sociological and moral point that doing the right thing is often difficult and we need to train ourselves to be ready to do the right thing, because most people’s default is the wrong thing when a peer or superior seems to be doing something wrong. (We are much better at challenging a lower status person who is doing wrong.)

    This kind of cover-up is, in fact, the institutional norm, not the exception, and I am urging all of us not just to react with horror at what is unfolding at Penn State but to take honest stock of ourselves and how we act in our institutions. The brutal fact is that many of us ordinary people tolerate evil because standing up to it is risky, the evidence can be construed as inconclusive, we know other things about the perpetrator that make him/her seem like a good person, and we tell ourselves stories about why the best thing is to let it go.

    There are also a lot of people blaming the grad student and the janitor who saw assaults in process and did not immediately intervene to stop them.

    Some of you are busy reflecting on how awful other people are. I’m reflecting on instances in which I perhaps should have spoken up when I thought something was wrong and how I can prepare myself to take action when action is needed.


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