11/10/2011 12:34 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Penn State president out amid furor over child sex abuse claims against Paterno

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State president Graham Spanier, a family sociologist and therapist who led the mammoth university system for 16 years, saw his tenure as one of America's longest-serving college presidents end Wednesday because of a campus child sex abuse scandal.

Spanier, among the highest-paid college presidents in the country, had come under fire over the past several days for his handling of allegations that a Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused at least eight boys over more than a decade. He was fired Wednesday night for failing to tell authorities about an allegation of child molestation in a campus locker-room shower.

The sex abuse scandal also claimed long-serving head coach Joe Paterno, who had announced Wednesday that this would be his last season in Happy Valley but wasn't given the chance to continue coaching, and two other top administrators, who stepped down earlier this week after being charged with perjury in the case.

The ousters of Spanier and Paterno were announced Wednesday night by university trustees.

"It is in the best interests of the university that a change in leadership (must be made) to deal with the difficult issues that we are facing," John P. Surma, vice-chairman of the university's board of trustees, said at a news conference.

The trustees said school provost and executive vice-president Rodney Erickson will be the interim president while the football team's defensive co-ordinator, Tom Bradley, will serve as interim coach.

Sandusky, considered Paterno's likely successor before he retired in 1999, was charged last week with molesting eight boys over a 15-year period. He has denied the charges.

A grand jury report said at least two of the assaults were witnessed on campus — and one of those was reported to Spanier. But the university president did not tell authorities about the reported attack on a young boy, which a football team graduate assistant claimed to have seen in 2002. The graduate student's accusation was passed up the chain of command to Spanier, but he said the seriousness of the encounter was not conveyed to him.

The grand jury report said Spanier described the episode as "Jerry Sandusky in the football building locker area in the shower ... with a younger child and they were horsing around in the shower."

Spanier said in a statement Wednesday night that he was "stunned and outraged to learn that any predatory act might have occurred in a university facility" and would have reported a crime if he'd suspected one had been committed.

"I am heartbroken to think that any child may have been hurt and have deep convictions about the need to protect children and youth," he said. "My heartfelt sympathies go out to all those who may have been victimized."

The investigation is continuing. State Attorney General Linda Kelly said Monday that Paterno is not a target of the inquiry into how the school handled the matter, but she refused to say the same for Spanier.

State police commissioner Frank Noonan earlier this week criticized school officials' handling of the allegations, saying "a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building" had a moral responsibility to call police if they suspected a child was being sexually abused. He also said Penn State had "a culture that did nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others."

Calls for Spanier's ouster by newspapers, online groups and petitions mushroomed in recent days, many supported by upset and disillusioned alumni.

The 63-year-old Spanier had led Penn State since 1995, and his contract was to run through 2015. The university system, headquartered in State College, includes 96,000 students on 24 campuses and has an annual budget of about US$4.3 billion.

Spanier earned more than $800,500 in annual base pay, deferred compensation and retirement contributions, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. He told The Associated Press earlier this year that he considered his salary, which was set by trustees, to be "very generous" and that it "feels peculiar for someone who grew up in a poor family."

Spanier has donated more than $1 million to the university. He also has overseen $3 billion in philanthropic contributions to Penn State during his tenure, according to his biography.

Spanier is well known in academics and athletics, both inside and outside Pennsylvania. He heads the Bowl Championship Series presidential oversight committee, hosts a sports talk show on the Big Ten's television network and previously led the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Penn State is a state-related institution that receives some public funding but is not under direct state control.

Spanier is trained as a family sociologist, demographer and marriage and family therapist. He first served in Happy Valley from 1973 to 1982 as a member of the faculty and in three administrative positions in the College of Health and Human Development.

He later went on to serve as chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Oregon State University and vice provost for undergraduate studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

He received bachelor's and master's degrees from Iowa State University, followed by a doctorate in sociology from Northwestern University.

He said Wednesday it had been his "great privilege and honour" to serve Penn State for more than 25 years, including the past 16 as president.

"I will continue to serve the university in every way possible and celebrate the greatness of Penn State," he said.

Spanier and his wife, an English professor at the university, have two children, both Penn State graduates.

Penn State student body President T.J. Bard, who said he has worked closely with Spanier over the past two years, called the president "a phenomenal leader for this university."

"That's not something that should be overlooked very quickly," he said.


Associated Press writers Kathy Matheson and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia contributed to this report.