ESPN report on failure of Penn State Board of Trustees

byDan Van Natta, Jr. ESPN

In November 2004, four of Penn State’s leaders, including then-president Graham
Spanier, sat down at Joe Paterno‘s kitchen table on a Sunday morning. The men
asked the iconic coach to retire. Paterno said no, and that was

That same month, seven members of Penn State’s board of trustees
proposed sweeping reforms that would have strengthened the board’s oversight
power of Spanier and other campus leaders, including Paterno, according to
documents obtained this week by “Outside the Lines.” The group told the full
board, “Decisions scrutinized with the benefit of hindsight need to withstand
the test of being informed decisions.”

But the board never took a vote on
the proposal. Spanier and then-board chairwoman Cynthia Baldwin considered the
reforms — and, just as Paterno had done, said no, three current trustees

The revelation comes to light five days after former FBI director
Louis Freeh‘s firm released its school-sanctioned report on what the university
did to protect children in the wake of the arrest of former defensive
coordinator Jerry Sandusky and the board’s Nov. 9 firing of Paterno and Spanier.
The report, which blasted the board for poor governance and a failure of
leadership, has led some trustees to say they now regret the good-governance
proposal never was put to a full vote by the board’s 32 members eight years

Joel Myers, a longtime trustee, said the Freeh investigators told
him that if the good-governance proposal had been adopted by the board back in
2004, “This (crisis) could have been avoided.”

The 2004 proposals are
eerily prescient considering how the trustees, according to the Freeh report,
were left in the dark by Spanier, Baldwin and trustee Steve Garban as the
Sandusky criminal investigation escalated in 2011. If the proposals had passed,
the trustees say the measures might have made a difference in the way the board
had responded to the Sandusky matter.

Two trustees said Freeh’s
investigators had asked them and other trustees about the 2004 good-governance
proposal and appeared determined to find out why it had not been adopted. One
trustee also said Freeh’s investigators told them they had obtained emails
between Spanier and Baldwin and others discussing the merits of the trustees’
proposal. The trustee also said Freeh’s investigators said that the emails
showed “Spanier and Baldwin put a stop” to the good-governance proposal. “They
didn’t want the added scrutiny,” the trustee said.

“It was a big, missed
opportunity,” said Al Clemens, another longtime trustee. “Back in 2004, we just
knew there wasn’t enough accountability, and it seemed like a reasonable step to
try to protect the university. It seemed like the right thing to

Joel Myers, a longtime trustee, said the Freeh investigators told
him that if the good-governance proposal had been adopted by the board back in
2004, “This (crisis) could have been avoided.”

After the good-governance
proposal was discussed in a private board session in 2004, at least four young
boys were sexually abused by Sandusky. Two trustees who spoke on condition of
anonymity said they fear the board’s failure to adopt the good-governance
proposal will be used by victims’ lawyers in the negligence lawsuits against
Penn State.

“This could increase our liability,” a current trustee said,
“possibly by millions.”

Yet there is no mention in the Freeh report of
the trustees’ failed good-governance proposal or the Spanier and Baldwin emails.
A spokesman for the Freeh Group declined to comment.

The board’s failure
to improve its good-governance practices is a curious omission from the Freeh
report, which made the trustees’ governance failure a main focus of its

According to the Freeh report, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office told
then-university counsel Baldwin on Dec. 28, 2010, that Paterno, athletics
director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz would be subpoenaed to
testify before the Sandusky grand jury. Baldwin did not seek outside counsel’s

The Freeh report found that Spanier and Baldwin dealt with the
escalating Sandusky crisis throughout 2011 with no outside advice from lawyers
with experience dealing with grand jury investigations. Spanier and Baldwin also
failed to seek the full advice of the board on how to handle the

This failure was noted by the Freeh Group, which referred to the
administrators’ “over-emphasis on ‘The Penn State Way.’ ” As defined by Freeh,
“The Penn State Way” is “an approach to decision-making, a resistance to seeking
outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not
recognized, negatively impact the university’s reputation as a progressive

Baldwin and Spanier representatives have both said the
Freeh report contains many errors, though no specifics have been

Maribeth Schmidt of the alumni group Penn Staters for
Responsible Stewardship said the board’s inaction and the omission of the failed
good-governance proposal in the Freeh report are disturbing.

“This new
development certainly raises additional questions about the integrity of the
Freeh report and further demonstrates that its objectivity is severely in
question,” she said in a statement. “The members of Penn Staters for Responsible
Stewardship would certainly expect that any misstep by the board — especially
one this significant — which occurred in the years included in the Freeh
investigation would have been documented and reported in its entirety.”

The closest Freeh’s investigators come to mentioning the board’s
evolving governance procedures can be found in the fine print, in footnote 557:
“See Standing Orders of the Penn State board of trustees, Order IX. This
statement on the general policies of the board of trustees was initially set
forth and approved by the board on June 11, 1970 and amended from time to time,
the most recent being January 19, 1996.”


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