Two Scandals, One Connection: The FBI link between Penn State and UC Davis
Two shocking scandals. Two esteemed universities. Two disgraced university leaders. One stunning connection. Over the last month, we’ve seen Penn State University President Graham Spanier dismissed from his duties and we’ve seen UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi pushed to the brink of resignation. Spanier was jettisoned because of what appears to be a systematic cover-up of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial child rape. Katehi has faced calls to resign after the she sent campus police to blast pepper spray in the faces of her peaceably assembled students, an act for which she claims “full responsibility.” The university’s Faculty Association has since voted for her ouster citing a “gross failure of leadership.” The names Spanier and Katehi are now synonymous with the worst abuses of institutional power. But their connection didn’t begin there. In 2010, Spanier chose Katehi to join an elite team of 20 college Presidents on what’s called the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, which “promotes discussion and outreach between research universities and the FBI.”
Spanier said upon the group’s founding in 2005, “The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board promises to help universities and government work toward a balanced and rational approach that will allow scientific research and education to progress and our nation to remain safe.” He also said that the partnership could help provide “internships” to faculty and students interested in “National Security issues.”
FBI chief Robert Mueller said at a press conference with Spanier, “We knew it would not be necessarily an easy sell because of the perceived tension between law enforcement and academia. But once we’ve briefed President Spanier on the national security threats that impact all of you here at Penn State and at other universities, it became clear to all of us why this partnership is so important. “
But the reality of this partnership is far different. Its original mandate was about protecting schools from “cyber theft” and “intellectual property issues.” But, as has been true with the FBI since Hoover, give them a foothold, and they’ll take off their shoes and get cozy. Their classified mandate has since expanded to such euphemisms as “counter-terrorism” and “public safety.” It also expanded federal anti-terrorism task forces to include the dark-helmeted, pepper-spray brigades, otherwise known as the campus police.
As Wired magazine put it in 2007, “Presidents are being advised to think like “Cold War-riors” and be mindful of professors and students who may not be on campus for purposes of learning but, instead, for spying, stealing research and recruiting people who are sympathetic to an anti-U.S. cause.”
Chancellor Katehi said in 2010 that despite these concerns, she was proud to join the NSHEA because, “It’s important for us to learn from the FBI about the smartest, safest protocols to follow as we do our work, and it is equally important that the FBI has a solid understanding of matters of academic freedom.”
Sacramento’s FBI Special Agent in Charge, Drew Parenti, praised her involvement, saying, “The FBI’s partnership with higher education is a key component in our strategy of staying ahead of national security threats from our foreign adversaries…. we are very pleased that Chancellor Katehi has accepted an appointment to serve on the board.”
As for the actual meetings between the presidents of academic institutions and the FBI, those discussions are classified. If you are a rabble-rousing faculty member or a student group stepping out of line, your school records can become the FBI’s business and you’d be none the wiser.
Chris Ott, from the Massachusetts ACLU, said of the NSHEA, “The FBI is asking university faculty, staff, and students to create a form of neighborhood watch against anything that is so called ‘suspicious.’ What kinds of things are they going to report on? Who has the right to be snitching? One of the scary things is who [on the campuses] will take it upon themselves to root out spies?”
In the wake of the scandals that have enveloped and now destroyed the careers of Spanier and Katehi, the very existence of the NCHEA should now be called to question. Given the personal character on display by these two individuals, why should anyone trust that the classified meetings have stayed in the realm of “cyber theft” and intellectual property rights? What did the FBI tell Chancellor Katehi about how to deal with the peacefully assembled Occupiers? Was “counter-terrorism advice given on how to handle her own students?
As for Spanier, how much of Sandusky’s actions at Penn State, which were documented on campus but never shared with the local police, was the FBI privy to? Why did the school hire former FBI director Louis Freeh to head up their internal investigation? Does that in fact represent a conflict of interest? And most critically, did the “chilling effect” of a sanctioned FBI presence at Penn State, actually prevent people from coming forward?
When Spanier was asked in 2005, if he was concerned about whether a formal partnership with the FBI would cause objections he said, “If there is an issue on my campus, I’d like to be the first person to hear about it, not the last.” In the context of recent events, it’s probably best to let those words speak for themselves. But fear not for the futures of these two stewards of higher education and academic freedom. Maybe Spanier can put his experience as a federal informant to good use from inside a federal prison. As for Katehi, if, as suspected, she’ll be unemployed shortly, perhaps she can take advantage of one of those fabulous internship opportunities having the FBI on campus provides.
Dave Zirin is the author of, The John Carlos Story (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary, Not Just a Game. Receive his column every week by emailing . Contact him at .
—The Nation, November 23, 2011