Forget about athletics for a moment: Is Penn State the biggest collegiate scandal of our era?

Penn State students demand new leadership in response to sex-abuse scandal. President Graham Spanier is now out of a job. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

I put the question to a group of college presidents Friday, asking them to recall a scandal as big as Penn State. They could name just one: the admissions favoritism scandal at the University of Illinois, which claimed the university’s president in 2009. But that story didn’t make the rounds like this one.

At some point, the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State jumped the rails from athletic scandal to just-plain scandal, from sports story to news story. NPR and The New York Times have published interactive timelines. As big as Joe Paterno is, the Penn State scandal now seems even bigger. It’s launched a national conversation about child abuse and privacy laws and the sullied brand of a major national university.

What else in the recent annals of academia comes close?

I searched the archives of the Chronicle of Higher Education and other sources for clues. Here, then, is a list of 10 college scandals in recent decades that claimed the jobs of college presidents. Each of them, no doubt, reverberated on campus as loudly as Graham Spanier’s exit has reverberated in State College. But none of them lit up the national news cycle in quite the same way.

1. University of Illinois admission scandal. U of I President B. Joseph White resigned in fall 2009 after the Chicago Tribune revealed a “clout list,” of applicants who got special consideration because of political connections. The episode raised eyebrows around Illinois, a state whose flagship university looms large.

2. University of Colorado recruiting scandal. Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffmann resigned in 2005 amid allegations that sex, booze and drugs were used to recruit football players. It was a double-barreled scandal: Hoffmann also faced criticism over Colorado Professor Ward Churchill, who had made inflammatory comments about the 2001 terror attacks.

3. American University expense-account scandal. AU President Benjamin Ladner was ousted in 2005 after his former driver (whom Ladner had fired) tipped off The Washington Post that Ladner had used university money to cover the costs of a 13-course engagement party and a personal French chef. Ladner got a nearly $4 million severance package.

4. St. Bonaventure NCAA scandal. The president, athletics director and basketball coach all resigned or lost their jobs at St. Bonaventure University in 2003, and the chairman of the Board of Trustees, committed suicide, all over the revelation that a men’s basketball player had played after failing to meet NCAA academic standards.

5. Eastern Michigan University crime scandal. Regents fired President John A. Fallon III in 2007 after a federal report alleged the school had grossly downplayed a murder on campus. Officials had claimed no reason to suspect foul play after the discovery of an apparent rape-murder.

6. UC Santa Cruz suicide. Denice Denton took her own life in 2006, apparently the only suicide of a university president in recent decades. She had been pilloried for alleged overspending, including $600,000 in renovations to her university residence, a $30,000 dog run (included in the $600,000) and a $192,000-a-year job for her partner. Student protesters had followed her around campus. She leapt to her death from the roof of a San Francisco high-rise.

7. Scandal and suicide at Hillsdale College. George C. Roche III left the institution he had “put on the map” in 1999 after the revelation of an alleged affair with his daughter-in-law. Lissa Roche died in an apparent suicide just after disclosing the affair.

8. Montgomery College expense-account scandal. Brian K. Johnson resigned as president of Maryland’s most esteemed community college in 2009 after a no-confidence vote by faculty, who alleged a pattern of overspending and absenteeism. Some critics felt Johnson’s extensive travel and dining habits were simply unseemly for the leader of a two-year college.

Do you know of a notable scandal I’ve missed? Please tell me about it in a comment.