STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Calling the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State a "tragedy" for all involved, former University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry says the school's trustees made the only decision they could in firing President Graham Spanier and head football Coach Joe Paterno.
Ikenberry knows both men well. He worked with Paterno as an administrator at Penn State in the 1970s and during efforts to bring Penn State into the Big Ten in the 1990s; and with Spanier during his two stints as UI president and as a leader in higher-education circles.
"It came as a shock and a surprise," Ikenberry said of the case involving alleged sexual abuse of young boys by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Paterno and Spanier were criticized for not doing more to report and stop the abuse.
Ikenberry couldn't recall a comparable incident "in all of higher education" with the same dimensions.
"From everything I've seen, (trustees) probably made the only decision they could fairly and appropriately have made," Ikenberry said. He believes Spanier and Paterno concurred, or would have reached the same conclusion very soon.
Ikenberry called Spanier one of the most highly respected presidents in the country, "apart from this incident."
Though he doesn't know all the facts, Ikenberry said both men likely "wish that they had asked tougher questions, that they had pursued this, that they had gone to the appropriate legal authorities quicker than they did" and pieced together the "various strands" of the case.
"Obviously this is a problem that had gone on for well over a decade," he said. "One of the things that leaders of all kinds are challenged to do is connect the dots and to be quicker to see issues than others might ordinarily be. And I think both Joe and the president, I'm sure, must wish that they had another opportunity to get hold of this earlier than they did."
Ikenberry, UI president from 1979 to 1995 in his first term, was called on to lead the school again in 2009-10 after former President B. Joseph White stepped down following the Category I admissions scandal. After retiring for good last year, Ikenberry moved back to State College with his wife, Judy, to take a position at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education and to be closer to family.
The UI and Penn State cases are very different but have some parallels, he said, including the lessons to be learned.
"On the one hand, administrators work to defend and protect the institution. They also have to work equally aggressively to protect the rights of individuals," he said.
"In all of our society, we need to be sure that big institutions, be they governments or businesses or universities, not only protect themselves but protect human beings, and place human welfare above everything else.
"I think that was the tragic failure that occurred in this instance," he said.
Ikenberry said no one at Penn State has sought his advice or asked if he would help out as an interim administrator, and he doesn't expect that to happen.
The interim president, Executive Vice President and Provost Rodney A. Erickson, has been at Penn State for many years and is "a very fine person," said Ikenberry, who just saw Erickson two weeks ago. At this point in his career, Erickson probably wouldn't be a candidate for the permanent job, so he's perfect as interim, Ikenberry said.
"I'd be happy to help in any way I could," he said, "but in this case, I'm confident I won't be asked to do this."
What is his advice for Penn State's leaders? Address the problems that led to the scandal, launch a search for new leadership, and work to put the scandal behind them in the same way Illinois did.
"What has happened is a tragedy no matter how you look at it, certainly for the victims and their families but also for the individuals involved and particularly for Penn State as a highly respected university," Ikenberry said.
"But we learn from tragedy. I know Illinois learned a lot from the challenges it faced, and you move forward."