From “Happy Valley” to Supermax?
Graham Spanier is going to jail.
Spanier was the longtime president of Penn State University (PSU), who was toppled in the notorious Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal in 2011 and 2012.
Sandusky was a veteran PSU assistant football coach, and in 2012 he was convicted of 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys, whom he lured into the campus under the cover of a youth charity he had started. Sandusky is now doing life in a supermax prison.
Sandusky’s story is ugly and traumatic, but it’s not my main focus here. Rather, I’m reflecting on some things I learned that in my view go along with it, and have not been properly weighed. These have to do with secrecy.
Because, after all, that was Graham Spanier’s crime. He did not lay hands on any youths. Instead, he was told that Sandusky was up to no good, and simply kept quiet about it.
Sandusky was busted on November 5, 2011. Spanier was fired four days later, along with legendary coach Joe Paterno. For his silence, Spanier was convicted in 2017 of one misdemeanor count of endangering a child’s welfare, and sentenced to two months in jail and two more on house arrest, plus probation and community service. His appeals were exhausted this week, and he was ordered to report to jail in early July.
Why did Spanier keep quiet? I don’t know, but I do know that shady secrecy is central to PSU’s institutional culture. This starts with its unique hybrid legal status, as a “state-related” university.
What’s that? Colleges are public or private, right?
Mostly. But in Pennsylvania there are a few exceptions, and PSU is the big one.
Its hybrid status appears to be purely a political invention. PSU is a corporate behemoth in Pennsylvania, with many campuses, with a very active alumni association that claims 700,000 members; and fulltime lobbying with the state legislature and in Washington. And that legislature created its hybrid status.
This hybridity’s main benefit, as far as I can see, is to facilitate secrecy: when it claims to be public, PSU can evade numerous public disclosure requirements; when it claims to be private, it can evade even more. And it does.
A foolish consistency is not to be expected here. Wikipedia notes a case when PSU lawyers were arguing both sides of this heads-we-win-tails-the-public-loses trick in state courts at the same time.
What does PSU get out of this privileged status? Among other things, it’s snagged among the largest piles of federal research funding on any American campus — last year, amid the Covid crash, their take exceeded a billion (with a B) dollars.
What’s all this research funding for? Now that’s an interesting question, because, you see, the answer is mostly secret. Except that we know the biggest chunk — and it’s huge — is for the Defense Department. That’s right, the war machine. And a whole lot of that is secret. (Or is the term still, “classified”?)
“We continue to value our long-standing partnership with the Department of Defense, and we are exceedingly proud of our ongoing role in defending the nation’s security,” said [PSU Senior Vice President for Research Lora] Weiss.
Much of this funding ends up at PSU’s blandly named Applied Research Laboratory, which employs over a thousand and has a budget of — well, that’s secret too. Vice President Weiss further explained that the Lab and related work is “focused on improving current and developing future warfighter technology to counter threats of destruction. ”
Which, when you stop to repeat it, tells us exactly nothing, other than to paraphrase “Making Life Better,” the PSU motto that was big when Sandusky was running free, as “Making War Better.”
But it’s a motto somebody sure liked. In March 2018, the Navy awarded the Lab the biggest research contract in the school’s history, worth $2 billion plus over ten years.
Two billion for what?
Let me make it perfectly clear. The announcement said that “ARL scientists and engineers will expand their vital role developing research that advances science and promotes national security,” Neil Sharkey, Penn State vice president for research, said . . . .
“Advances science.” “Promotes national security.” What more could we want, information-wise?
A Wikipedia note listing some reputed lab projects spoke of torpedoes for the Navy. Which was a bit surprising to find underway at a lab in the middle of a valley in the Allegheny mountains in the middle of a landlocked state. But hey, the Navy really did sign off on that ten year, two-billion plus package there; and the Navy often has a lot to do around water.
The point here is that any president at PSU has to be comfortable with giving complete non-answers to the public about the largest chunks of what goes on in and around many of the nondescript buildings on its main campus. And the Lab, by the way, has been there since the end of World War Two. Lots of time for practice.
Meantime, the “legendary” football prowess of Penn State, which clogs the roads for miles around Happy Valley on Saturdays every autumn (well, maybe not last autumn) provides, let’s face it, a great cover story. Even a memorably ugly football-connected sex abuse scandal has its diversionary upside.
Could it be that the habits of being both privately public, and/or publicly private, along with covering up the war billions, year after year, decade after decade, might spill over into other matters?
What other secrets are waiting to leak out in “Happy Valley”?