Penn State Falls Into a Pit
by Michael Geer, President
The release of the Freeh Report today regarding the Penn State- Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal brought to mind words spoken at a Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee hearing more than a decade ago. Those words, spoken by then- Penn State President Graham Spanier, demonstrated such a lack of moral clarity at the very top of Penn State that today’s news is hardly a surprise.
I also remembered Spanier’s disturbing words last fall – before the scandal broke — as I sat in the audience at the Pennsylvania Capitol Press Club luncheon that featured him as the keynote speaker.
No one in the audience knew of the turmoil that was about to hit just weeks later with the release of the Grand Jury report on the Sandusky child sexual abuse allegations. If they did, they weren’t saying.
But I sat in that Harrisburg Hilton ballroom as Spanier spoke, I was thinking about his troubling response to a pointed question from a Democratic lawmaker more than ten years earlier in that House budget hearing. Said Spanier:
“I’m not understanding what you mean by wrong.”
Yes, that’s what the leader of one of the most prominent universities in the world said. Is it any wonder then, that “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized, ” according to lead investigator Louis Freeh?
Let me take you back, to February 26, 2001. In a widely reported and heavily attended appropriations hearing at our State Capitol, Penn State President Graham Spanier was challenged by several legislators about two recent Penn-state funded sexually-explicit events on campus – one called the “Sex Faire,” the other with a name that shouldn’t be repeated by any decent person.
Both of these events, by any honest assessment, grossly violated common decency and community standards. Indeed, a brief video of the “Sex Faire” photographed by a State House video crew was shown at the hearing (and on the PCN cable channel that covered it). It was the first program ever on PCN to require a parental advisory. The “Sex Faire” event even included a “tent of consent,” where students could sign a release form, and then enter the on-campus tent, and engage in whatever sexual behavior – safe or unsafe, moral or immoral, that they chose to.
During the questioning, President Spanier danced around the topic as best he could, but found great difficulty answering questions from Rep. Dave Mayernik (D-Allegheny). Mayernik finally had enough. Here is the interchange, as reported by Philadelphia Inquirer writer Tom Fitzgerald:
Mayernik: “Was it [the on-campus Sex Faire] wrong, yes or no?”
Spanier demurred, saying that portions of it were inappropriate.
Mayernik: “Former President Clinton went through this with what the meaning of ‘is’ is,”
Spanier: “I’m not trying to be evasive, but to give an honest answer. I’m not understanding what you mean by ‘wrong.’ “
“I’m not understanding what you mean by wrong.”
A response like that from a college president – the President of Penn State – provides some great insight into the culture at the highest levels at that university that allowed the Sandusky abuse to continue for more than a decade.
And it wasn’t the only clue. Long before become a college administrator, among Graham Spanier’s earliest academic research papers was a study of “spouse swapping, ” considered by most Americans to be immoral, or more simply put, wrong. But not to Spanier, who wrote this in the introductory paragraphs of the paper,
We choose to view deviant behavior simply as behavior that some value
and others consider wrong. An individual’s behavior becomes deviant only when others define it as deviant. Much of an individual’s behavior can be viewed as a response to this “labeling.” (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1975, p145)
It used to be standard practice in American higher education for presidents of colleges to teach a mandatory course to all students called, “Moral Philosophy” – or more simply put, Christian morals and character.
John Witherspoon, one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a Presbyterian minister in his native Scotland, and in coming to America became president of what is now Princeton University. He taught the moral philosophy class there – and it had quite an impact. Among his students, one became U.S. President – James Madison, architect of the Constitution. Also, one vice president, nine cabinet officers, twenty-one Senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and twelve state governors.
For years at Penn State, and at way too many institutions of higher education, there has been virtually no President or Chancellor truly able to teach a class in moral philosophy. Could Graham Spanier – who could not understand what “wrong” means – possibly have created a culture and climate on his campus that will replicate and inculcate virtue?
It brings to mind Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15 – “if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
That is what happened. What a big pit it is.