Nearly a year ago, Pennsylvania State University began its darkest chapter when former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted for raping and molesting young boys.

Now the man who ran the university - former president Graham B. Spanier - has been indicted on allegations that he failed to stop Sandusky when he had the chance.

Spanier, once among the nation's most respected university presidents, faces the prospect of ending his career as a felon.

While there was widespread speculation about Spanier's being indicted for months, Thursday's announcement was no less chilling for those who had admiringly watched Spanier - as a child, a victim of physical abuse at the hands of his father - build a sterling career at Pennsylvania's flagship university.

"It's just hard for me to believe no matter how many gazillion years I've been an investigative reporter that my friend of 50 years would lie to me or do anything that would endanger children," said Steve Weinberg, a freelance writer who formerly taught at the University of Missouri journalism school.

Spanier's lawyers in a statement maintained his innocence and said the charges were politically motivated.

"Ultimately, this is another sad day for the victims, the Penn State community, and American higher education," said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, which monitors higher education trends.

He said he knew of no other cases in which a current or former university president faced similar charges.

Though Penn State has made great strides to repair its reputation, Spanier's indictment serves another devastating blow.

"It makes it worse, certainly," said Donald Heller, former director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State and now education dean at Michigan State University. "It means the president, the CEO of the university, is being charged with being complicit in the cover-up. That certainly can't help."

Spanier, 64, found himself under scrutiny nearly from the start. When two former administrators, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, were charged with perjury in the case last November, he immediately issued a statement backing them, which irked members of the board of trustees. Spanier was forced to resign shortly after.

A university-commissioned investigative report released by former FBI Director Louis Freeh in July accused Schultz, Curley, and Spanier of covering up the allegations.

Since then, Spanier largely has maintained a low profile.

His 16 years at Penn State's helm were nothing less than transformative.

He was among the highest-paid public college or university presidents in the nation, earning more than $1 million in fiscal year 2011, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Under his leadership, the university started an online "world campus," created an honors college that has attracted some of the state's best students, and opened the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

In 2000, the university completed a merger with the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, and in January 2009 opened a $60 million law school on Penn State's main campus. The building complements the law school, which underwent a $50 million renovation and expansion. Under Spanier, the university also started an international affairs school, a cancer institute, and an arboretum.

Scholarships and research expenditures grew substantially, and the school collected $3 billion in philanthropic donations.

Spanier and his wife, Sandy, currently an English professor and Ernest Hemingway scholar at Penn State, were scheduled to be feted by a local philanthropic group, the Renaissance Fund, almost a year ago on Nov. 9.

Instead, that was the day the university's trustees forced Spanier's ouster.

Spanier has continued to live in the Penn State community. The couple's children are Penn State graduates.

Spanier had remained a tenured professor there on sabbatical. On Thursday, the university placed him on leave pending the case's outcome.

Born in South Africa - where his father fled from Nazi Germany - Spanier moved with his parents to Chicago. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Iowa State University and his doctorate from Northwestern University.

He came to Penn State in 1973, and for nine years served on the faculty and in three administrative positions in the College of Health and Human Development.

From 1982 to 1995, Spanier worked at other colleges, as administrator at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and at Oregon State University, and then as chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He returned to Penn State as president.

He is a marriage and family therapist by training and a family sociologist. In a 1989 speech, later published by the Journal of Marriage and Family, Spanier - then vice president and provost at Oregon State - talked of his early life.

Of his father, he said: "His marriage was dismal, his family life was decidedly unhappy, and his abusive behavior toward his wife and children, tolerated in the 1950s, would have resulted in legal intervention today."

Those who knew Spanier well are struggling to come to terms with the indictment.

"He was so involved as a father, as a volunteer, as a university administrator," Weinberg said.

Weinberg attended high school with Spanier in Highland Park, a northern suburb of Chicago, and was in his wedding in Des Moines, Spanier's wife's hometown.

Weinberg, formerly director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors group, said it was unfair to expect Spanier, who ran a 24-campus university with nearly 100,000 students, to be on top of every issue or case.

"When he finely did learn something, he acted very appropriately and delegated the rest," Weinberg maintained.

Weinberg blasted the Freeh report when it came out, saying the facts don't support the conclusions. He wasn't alone.

Richard Gelles, dean of University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, who has known Spanier since 1972, also was critical of it.

But something really bothers Gelles - that Spanier failed to track down the identity of the boy whom a former graduate assistant reported he saw Sandusky raping in a shower in 2001. That allegation came three years after the first allegation against Sandusky was investigated.

During an e-mail exchange with Spanier this summer, Gelles asked him to explain.

Gelles declined to quote Spanier's answer, but said it amounted to: "Yeah, I guess we should have done that."

Gelles had a much stronger reaction.

"I came away with - No, you really should have done that," Gelles recalled.

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

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