Q&A with alumnus Graham Spanier

Micaela Cashman

Graham Spanier is not your run-of-the-mill university president. He’s a musician, he rooms with freshmen at the beginning of the school year and he is part of the 11-year champion intramural racquetball team.

What year did you graduate from Iowa State, and what did you get your degree(s) in?

1969, B.S. in sociology; 1971, M.S. in sociology

Did you originally start out in that program? What led you to choose that program?

I began as a mathematics major and switched to sociology about halfway through my undergraduate work. I fell in love with sociology after taking two classes with excellent professors. I have never looked back.

What other schools did you attend and for what degrees?

Northwestern University for my Ph.D.

What activities/organizations were you involved in at Iowa State?

Student government, residence hall government, Executive Budgetary Commission, Open Line, Orientation, Cardinal Key, radio and television broadcasting, Martin Luther King scholarship fund, human relations panel and administrative advisory groups.

What is your favorite thing about Iowa State?

My memories of the people I met there and the opportunities for leadership and involvement.

Describe your career path. 

I became a professor at Penn State after I finished my Ph.D. and then did teaching, research and service. I gradually took on more administrative responsibility, moving from the department level to the college level to the university level. I am now in my seventh progressively-responsible administrative position as President of Penn State.

What has been your proudest accomplishment?

Putting people first in my various administrative roles and creating a more student-centered university.

What do you find are some of the major differences between Iowa State and Penn State?

Iowa State and Penn State are much more alike than different. Penn State is bigger in some respects, with multiple campuses, more students and a medical center, but the heart of our universities feel similar to me. Both universities enjoy great support from their students, alumni, donors and the public.

What do you like most and least about your job?

What I like the most is interacting with students. What I like the least is the ups and downs of governmental activities.

How have you changed expectations students typically have from their college president?

I am not a conventional president, so Penn State students probably see me differently than they would see most presidents. I live in the residence halls for awhile at the beginning of each academic year. I play in several bands. I do magic shows. And I perform with various student performing arts groups on campus.

What is your advice for college students, particularly those pursuing the same degrees you did?

Get to know at least one faculty member well early in your time at the university. Never miss a class. Don’t expect others to hold your hand through college, since the burden of success is now on your shoulders.

What is one thing you know now that you wish you would’ve known in college?

Don’t be afraid to express your interest in others, since you never know if someone might be more interested than you think. I was way too reticent and probably missed out on some social opportunities.