Erickson brings dedication to role as Penn State president during challenging period

Story posted December 6, 2012 in News by Sarah Peters

This wasn’t his first time under fire.

Erickson portraitRodney Erickson had faced the heat of enraged alum- ni at town hall meetings in January, while they were still reeling over the firing of the late head football coach Joe Paterno.

He had looked squarely into the eyes of “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer July 29 on national television as he defended his acceptance of the NCAA’s unprecedented sanctions: a $60 million fine, four-year ban on postseason football play, reduction in scholarships, and vacating all Penn State victories between 1998 and 2011.

He had coolly stood by his actions, under the glaring lights of the boardroom in the Nittany Lion Inn at the Sept.14 Board of Trustees meeting, after an alumna had not so subtly insinuated that either he or top NCAA officials had lied about their communication leading up to the sanctions.
He had endured the flat, rapid-fire questioning of National Press Club president Theresa Werner as he stood at a lectern in a ballroom at a Nov. 2 luncheon, in the heart of Washington, D.C., away from his home turf.

But there it was: the question about the NCAA sanctions.

He reiterated that he accepted the penalties because they were a better alternative than a ban on football, and because accepting them was the next step in moving the institution forward.

Erickson has made thousands of decisions during his 35 years at Penn State, but the decision — to accept the NCAA’s punishment — will be the one that people will remember about his tenure as president.

It is a decision he made like all the others: after carefully weighing the options.

For the man who is quiet by nature, being in the spotlight took some getting used to. Last November, as the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal rocked the university, Erickson’s world changed. He had been content — and, according to colleagues, superb — in his role as executive vice president and provost, a position he held for more than 12 years.

Suddenly, he found himself in the corner office, where he never had aspired to be, with responsibility for a $4.3 billion enterprise on 24 campuses spread across the commonwealth with 44,000 employees and 96,000 students.

The day-to-day presidential pressures and duties were formidable enough. But Erickson also had to deal with the consequences of the scandal that catapulted him to the presidency.

It’s no wonder that many consider his job to be the most challenging in American higher education today.

What a job

The then 65-year-old former ge- ography professor accepted the job on Nov. 10, 2011, after the Board of Trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno and forced Graham Spanier to resign as president.

Erickson was on the verge of retirement from a job in which he oversaw all the university’s academic programs.

But he knew he had to step up and assume the presidency when the board asked him. Penn State needed a new president right away, and no one else possessed his understanding of how the university operates.

“I felt it would be difficult for somebody coming in from the outside, given the challenges that we faced, who would be able to hit the ground running,” Erickson said. “In fact, it would take many months, really, to comprehend the scope and complexity and magnitude of the university.”

Monica Nachman, Erickson’s administrative assistant since he became provost on July 1, 1999, remembers coming into the office the morning of Nov. 10, 2011, and seeing the concern on Erickson’s face. She also saw determination. “I could see right then,” Nachman said, “that he was going to do whatever it took to help us keep going, help us keep moving and continue to move on.”

So, instead of retiring, he has been working seven days a week for more than a year to direct an institution still reeling from the scandal.

Sandusky, 68, was convicted in June of 45 counts of child sex abuse against 10 teenage victims during a 15-year period.

In October, he was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in state prison.

Sitting at his desk in the pres- ident’s office in Old Main, Erickson said the challenges emerging from the scandal will continue for years.

Hired by the university to examine the handling of the Sandusky matter, former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued a scathing 267-page report on July 11 that accused top university administrators of covering up allegations against Sandusky to avoid negative publicity. Freeh said the alleged cover up was tantamount to a “total disregard for the safety and welfare” of Sandusky’s victims.

Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said on July 23, the day he announced the sanctions: “The Penn State case has provoked in all of us deeply powerful emotions, and shaken our most funda- mental confidence in many ways.”

He continued: “Our goal is not to be just punitive, but to make sure the University establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of education, nurturing and protecting young people.”

On the legal front, Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly announced eight charges, including perjury, endangering the welfare of children and criminal conspiracy, against former president Spanier on Nov. 1. Athletic director Tim Curley, now on administrative leave, and former interim vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz are awaiting trial on charges of perjury and failure to report suspected abuse by Sandusky. On Nov. 1, Kelly also announced additional charges against Curley and Schultz, accusing them of endangering the welfare
of children, criminal conspiracy and obstructing administration of the law or other governmental function. The university is working to settle civil suits filed by Sandusky’s victims.

On the financial front, Standard & Poor’s assigned the university a negative credit outlook on Oct. 15 because of the civil suits and legal costs related to the scandal. The ratings agency said limited state funding and lower enrollment at some commonwealth campuses also affected its decision. It previously had given Penn State a stable outlook.

On the academic front, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education issued an accreditation warning on Aug. 8. The commission accredits colleges and universities in the mid-Atlantic region. Its warning focused on university governance and finances.

Erickson was able to mark the Middle States challenge off his list on Nov. 15 when the commission lifted its warning.

The day following the commission’s decision, Erickson said in a university release: “When notified of the warning we were confident we could verify our ongoing commitment to integrity, stable leadership and financial security—the areas that Middle States had questioned. While the excellence of our educational programs was never in question, it is reassuring that Middle States continues to recognize Penn State as a world-class academic institution that is stepping up to meet its current challenges.”

Erickson spends time every day dealing with issues related to the Sandusky scandal. That takes away from the time he can spend meeting with students and faculty or fundraising for student scholarships, he said.

“One of the great challenges of being a university president, even in the best of circumstances, is that there’s never enough time to do the job,” Erickson said.

At the beginning of November, responsibilities pertaining to the Sandusky case were “nearly consuming” because of all the one-year-later media interviews, he said. When Erickson spoke to a class of communications students about his relationship with the media, he said that, for him, becoming the face of the university was a real challenge.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my professional life, because I’m, by nature, a shy person,” he said. “I was very happy being a much more behind-the-scenes person in my role as executive vice president and provost.”

For Erickson, the low point—“the greatest shock”— came when he read the grand jury presentment against Sandusky. He found himself “trying to comprehend how something of the nature of these allegations could have occurred in a place I thought I knew.”

His focus is on the long term. The future continues to be bright for the university, Erickson said, and he is determined to keep that focus. He said that, even on the bad days, he reminds himself that Penn State is resilient and that its people are resolute.

A long tenure

Erickson has spent 35 years at Penn State after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and a doctoral degree in geography from the University of Washington.

He discovered geography and economics after leaving his original fields of study, math and physics, he said.

He began his career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught regional economics, economic development policies and statistical methods. When he arrived at Penn State as an assistant professor in 1977, he taught urban geography. He was promoted to professor of geography and business administration in 1984.

In 1995, Erickson was appointed dean of the gradu- ate school, and he added the duties of vice president for research in March 1997. He was promoted to executive vice president and provost on July 1, 1999.

He is quick to point out that he still hasn’t left the classroom. For an hour, from 5:30 to 6:30 on Tuesdays in Atherton Hall, Erickson teaches a class of 30 Presidential Leadership Academy students about critical thinking and leadership. Erickson said he still enjoys teaching.

Likewise, his students enjoy the discussions he leads.

The class has given students the opportunity to work with a “larger-than-life” figure, said Nicholas Freda, a sophomore studying computer science. Freda said that sometimes Erickson will let the discussion go and then interject an insightful remark.

“He’s somewhat soft-spoken, but pretty much everything he says has a lot of foundation,” Freda said.

Freda has found it interesting to hear how Erickson makes difficult decisions for Penn State—by carefully evaluating all the criteria to calculate the choice with the best outcome. Freda said he had learned that decisions are often more complicated than they appear.

Students also have found that Erickson has a sense of humor. Speaking to a communications class at the beginning of November, Erickson joked that he’ll determine what he wants to do with his life when he retires, which he expects to do in a year and a half.

“When I leave, I’ll be 67 years old and ready to decide what I’ll be when I grow up,” he said.

‘A many-headed hydra’

Sam Hayes Jr., a member of the Board of Trustees, former Pennsylvania state representative and former state secretary of agriculture, said it was fortuitous that Erickson was there to step in as president.

“This is a many-headed hydra with many considerations ... that an institutional leader has to take into account,” Hayes said. “In this moment, there is a need for an institutional leader who is very expansive, very understanding. And that’s what you have in Rod Erickson.”

Blannie Bowen, vice provost for academic affairs, said the job requirements of the president differ markedly from those of the provost. The time Erickson used to spend almost exclusively on academics, he now spends on additional duties, such as fundraising and alumni relations.

Peter Tombros, volunteer chair of Penn State’s $2 billion capital campaign, said Erickson has devoted “enormous time” to all of the campaign activities. Erickson’s intelligence and work ethic have helped him learn how to fundraise, as well as how to manage all of the other functions that keep the university operating during this difficult time, Tombros said.

By the end of October, Penn State had raised $1.66 billion—with $344 million to go over the next 21 months. Erickson has a handle on the overall function of the university, which allows him to perform well in all of his presidential tasks, Bowen said. Still, he said, Erickson probably didn’t fully expect all that he was getting himself into. The circumstances are unprecedented for American higher education, Bowen said.

“I don’t know that there’s any kind of preparation that anyone would have for taking on what he’s taking on now,” Bowen said.

Erickson also has the right mentality for the job, Hayes said. He is able to understand competing points of view.

Tombros said Erickson brings others into the decision-making process and seeks to build a consensus. Erickson is decisive and also courageous and independent, Tombros said.

Robert Pangborn, interim executive vice president and provost, regards Erickson as consultative in his deci- sion-making. As Erickson approaches a decision, he gets information from the people who have a stake in the outcome. He is consistent in his approach and is open about what he is thinking. That consistency is essential as he delivers his messages to unhappy alumni, Pangborn said.

Pangborn said Erickson understands the balance between being a good communicator and being a good listener.

“He likes to hear people’s perspectives before he makes a decision or before he, in some cases, voices his own opinion,” Pangborn said. Erickson recognizes that if someone in authority shares his or her opinion before hearing other opinions, subordinates may be apprehensive about challenging it, he said.

That’s one way in which Erickson differs from former president Spanier, Pangborn said. Spanier was “very confident” and would be in a “reporting mode,” instead of a listening mode, Pangborn said. He attributes their differences in communication styles to their distinct personalities.

Erickson said he relies on the advice of members of the President’s Council, a group of senior-level central administrators. If anyone on his team thinks there is going to be a significant issue, Erickson wants to get it out in the open immediately.

“The people who are around the table aren’t afraid to think or disagree with me,” Erickson said. “I think we have much better lines of communication than existed a year ago. That’s for the betterment of the university.”

The political challenges

Before, Erickson’s responsibilities were in the academic arena. Now, as president, he is interacting with not only the university community, but also with the state’s political leaders.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said he knows what’s happening at the university from sitting on the Board of Trustees—but the state also has a “very strong relationship” with Erickson as it examines the future of higher education in the face of population and budget changes. Penn State’s commitment to the agricultural sector makes it pivotal to the state’s “economic vitality,” Tomalis said.

This year marks the first time Erickson will defend his own state appropriations request in front of legislators. Penn State’s $279 million appropriation in the university’s 2011-2012 budget was the lowest since 1995.

As the leader of a multi-billion-dollar organization with multiple locations and thousands of employees, Erickson can’t afford to be myopic, Tomalis said. Erickson brings a strong academic background and an understand- ing of Penn State as a financial behemoth.

Tomalis said Erickson wants to expand opportunities for students while maximizing the state’s return on its investment in Penn State. Erickson understands the pressure on the state to develop a budget that meets the needs of its citizens without placing an overwhelming burden on its taxpayers, he said

“He’s cognizant of the pressures of rising tuition and fees on students as well,” Tomalis said. “He’s equally concerned about that.”

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Erickson does “a fairly effective job of advocating for the university.” At the last appropriation hearing, he said, Erickson took the right approach by focusing on the cost of students’ education and communicating to the state its share of the cost.

Corman said Erickson and Spanier are different in how they interact with state government.
“It’s night and day,” he said. “President Spanier was a little more forceful and bold in his approach, whereas President Erickson is a little more reserved and respectful.”

Tomalis said he was pleased with the relationship between the state and the university under Erickson’s leadership. They haven’t been in 100 percent agreement with the tough decisions that Erickson has had to make, Tomalis said, but Erickson knows the relationship between Harrisburg and the university is critical to the future of both institutions. They continue to build a “constructive relationship,” Tomalis said.

Erickson tends to be less into “dramatics” and more into the “nuts and bolts” of an operation, Tomalis said. He said he had been humbled by the way Erickson had weathered challenges and criticism in the media with “dignity and grace.”

“He’s been a very steady hand of leadership when the university needed someone of that caliber,” Tomalis said.

Forces of opposition

Not everyone is happy with Erickson’s performance as president. The Penn State Alumni Association received between 1,500 and 2,000 emails and other forms of communication in the two to three weeks after Erickson signed the NCAA consent decree, executive director Roger Williams said. Most of the alums, he said, were very upset.

Alumni opinions of Erickson’s decisions are “all over the map,” Williams said.

“There’s some alumni who take some exception to what has been done with the signing of the consent order and others who understand that it was necessary to avoid the death penalty and keep this university playing foot- ball and keep moving forward,” he said.

Erickson said he continues to communicate with those who are still angry and he hopes that, “over time, they will evolve with a better understanding of why certain decisions were made.”

To answer questions from alumni about the Sandusky scandal, Erickson traveled to town hall meetings in Pittsburgh, New York City and suburban Philadelphia in January. At each of those meetings, one Penn State administrator said, Erickson was a “human piñata.”

But there’s no substitute for being “out there” and showing a semblance of humanity to alumni who are still angry, Erickson said.

Bowen, the vice provost for academic affairs, said Erickson handles criticism well, because he is very balanced. He accepts that some people are going to express different opinions. The bottom line is that he has “a tremendous passion for the university,” Bowen said.

Criticism comes with the territory of being president, Bowen said. Erickson expects people to disagree, but he expects them to do it in a civilized way. That is how people respond to his “low-key, very forceful and very authoritative presence,” Bowen said.

Erickson strives diligently to listen to all sides of the story. The reality, though, is that in a situation “as difficult, as sad, as pervasive as what we have,” there are going to be some people who are never going to accept the decisions that were made, Bowen said.

Franco Harris, the NFL Hall of Famer and former Penn State great, is among the alumni who have been critical of the university’s handling of the Sandusky scandal and its aftermath. Harris has rallied Penn Staters who feel betrayed by those in charge of the alma mater they hold dear.
At the conclusion of the public comment session at September’s Board of Trustees meeting, Harris stepped to the microphone and asked to “pinch hit” for a speaker who could not attend. As Harris began to speak, the microphone was turned off. Harris had not registered in advance, as the rules stipulated.

But Harris had his chance to speak the next morning, when a crowd of about 300 students, alumni and supporters gathered on the lawn of Old Main prior to the football team’s game against Navy.

Many in the crowd wore Penn State jerseys and football buttons. A cardboard cutout of coach Paterno rested next to the globe sculpture at the foot of the con- crete stairs leading up to the Old Main portico. The crowd occasionally chanted “Franco! Franco!”

Although a weak sound system made Harris’ remarks difficult to hear, he made his point clear: The trustees set a path of destruction when they fired Paterno, without due process, based on flawed information from the state attorney general’s office, Harris said.

Harris told the crowd that it was up to them to protect Penn State’s future.

Recently elected trustee Anthony Lubrano joined Harris, sticking up for Paterno and questioning the loyalty of many of the trustees. Lubrano committed to a $2.5 million donation in 2002 that helped pay for the Penn State baseball stadium, Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, which is also used by a minor league team.

During a telephone interview on Oct. 22, a few weeks after the rally, Lubrano said Erickson had been put in an “untenable situation” by the board, which demanded Spanier’s resignation without sufficient information.

“They came to him and asked him to serve, and being a loyal man, he said ‘yes,’” Lubrano said. “Under the circumstances, I don’t think that was the correct course for the Board of Trustees. I can’t imagine any employee who has been at Penn State for 35-plus years, as Dr. Erickson has, would have said no.”

Erickson is an appropriate person to serve on an interim basis, but hiring him as president was an act of convenience, Lubrano said. The board should have immediately embarked on a national search for Spanier’s replacement after they asked him to resign, he said. The university needs someone who is going to stand up for the university and “not necessarily apologize at every turn,” Lubrano said.

Lubrano described Erickson as a thoughtful man but said he disagreed with his acceptance of the NCAA sanc- tions. The Sandusky scandal is a criminal matter outside of the NCAA’s purview, and the NCAA was making a false threat when it said Penn State would face a multi- year ban on football if it didn’t accept sanctions, Lubrano said. Erickson should have told the NCAA it was overstepping its bounds, and he should have conferred with all of the trustees before agreeing to the sanctions, instead of telling them about it afterward, he said.

“Now, what have we done? We’ve penalized many, many people, who had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky’s behavior,” Lubrano said.

Aware of the consequences

In an interview, Erickson said he was well aware of the consequences of “the very strong possibility” of a multi-year death penalty and the effect that it would have on all of Penn State’s intercollegiate athletic teams.

The fans who pack Beaver Stadium to watch the Nittany Lion football team generate the revenue that funds the other 30 varsity sports. They fuel the local economy when they flood downtown eateries, shops and hotels.

“Faced with a very difficult choice of two very dire alternatives, I chose what I believed then and still believe to be the best of two very dire sets of consequences,” Erickson said.

George Arnold, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said the death penalty would have been a real challenge—although he didn’t think the threat was likely.

“To me, it just didn’t seem very realistic that it was a possibility,” he said.

Any event downtown is important to the businesses, but football is the biggest attractor, Arnold said. Football fans who travel to the games give a boost not only to the State College economy, but also to the little towns along the way, Arnold said.

The team’s fortitude in the face of adversity has been helpful to downtown businesses. When the community felt it was “very unjust” for the NCAA to levy the sanc- tions, Penn State supporters united to back the football team, Arnold said. The situation has built bridges between students, community members and businesses, he said.

“Largely, the Penn State community has rallied and got behind the players and said, ‘If you guys are sticking with the team, we are sticking by you,’” Arnold said. “As a community, we’ve benefited and we’ve come together through this challenging situation.”

Bowen said he is in a unique position, because he has been through three of the biggest coaching changes in the history of college football. He was a graduate student at Ohio State when head football coach Woody Hayes was fired for punching an opposing team’s player during the 1978 Gator Bowl. He was a faculty member at Mississippi State University, near the University of Alabama, when head coach Bear Bryant retired and then died suddenly. And he was vice provost at Penn State when the Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno.

Each situation is very difficult, even in the best circumstances, because someone who is a legend of almost unbelievable proportions is gone, Bowen said.

“There will never be another Woody Hayes, and there will never be another Joe Paterno. You have to accept that fact of life, but that is a very difficult realization for a lot of people,” Bowen said.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, he said, but Penn State needs to proceed.

“We have to try at some point to move forward, because the world is going to continue to exist,” Bowen said.

A farmer at heart

Even under ordinary circumstances, the job of a university president is not easy. There are town halls to attend, meetings with deans, alumni dinners, interviews with the national media, daily personnel brush fires to extinguish, and money to raise.

Erickson has no typical day, but his daily schedule can be packed with eight to 10 meetings that last for 30 minutes or longer. His days rarely, if ever, end at 5 p.m. When he’s not meeting with students or alumni in the evening, he may be attending performances or athletic events.

He spent Monday, Nov. 5, doing eight media interviews.

On Tuesday, Election Day, he waited in line to vote for 30 minutes before he got inside his precinct and realized the line wound around the room. He decided to leave and come back to vote after his work day. He had a breakfast meeting to attend with a head coach before talking to a communications class at 9:45. Later that day, he had another appointment with a coach and afternoon staff meetings. At 5:30, he taught the Presidential Leadership Academy class.

On Wednesday, he went to Chicago to meet with donors, before returning at midnight.

Erickson called Thursday a “lighter” day, but it included telephone calls to a government official in Washington and a university president, as well as meetings with two job applicants and some Penn State administrators. In addition, to prepare for a meeting the following day, he spent time reviewing the report of the Governor’s Commission on Postsecondary Education.

That evening, Erickson and his wife, Shari, were on campus, attending a performance of the Ron Carter Jazz Trio in Schwab Auditorium.

On Friday, he attended the last meeting of Gov. Tom Corbett’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education in Harrisburg.

Bowen said Erickson’s schedule is booked solidly almost every day, including Saturdays and Sundays.

Even when Erickson feels the pressure of the job, he doesn’t show it, Pangborn said. He has a good sense of his limits and knows when to step back to get some rest. People don’t step into the kind of role Erickson did unless they are good at taking each day as it comes, letting go of what they can’t control and stepping in to control what they can, Pangborn said.

“You just kind of take it day by day, and things get better over time if you’re making the right choices,” Pangborn said.

Despite his hectic schedule, Erickson has a few diversions.

He has never strayed far from his agrarian roots.

The son of a farmer and an elementary school teacher, Erickson grew up on a farm outside Grantsburg, Wis. He remembers the continual labor as it changed with the seasons. Sharing among neighbors was common, especially during the harvest season, Erickson said. His father had a relatively large, technology-equipped farm, so his father did work for other farmers in the neighborhood and for his uncle, who also farmed. The social activities revolved around the school and the church, Erickson said.

His brother and sister followed in his parents’ foot- steps. His sister, who still lives in Wisconsin, is a retired school teacher. His brother farms in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, he said.

Today, Erickson farms a 52-acre plot on the west side of State College. He and his wife, Shari, have lived there for 26 years. He grows corn and soybeans. While he keeps no livestock, he has a few fish in his pond, he said. Despite his seven-days-a-week day job, Erickson still finds time to take care of his land.

“Much of the field work that I do takes place, I often joke, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” Erickson said. “I have large toys that allow me to cover the ground rather quickly, and I have a friend who has harvested with me for the past 23 years, so he handles the fall work.”

Nachman, his former assistant, said two things keep Erickson going: his wife and his farm. One day, he asked Nachman to make sure he could leave early to help his wife prepare for an event at their home. Nachman said she arrived a bit early to help with the event—only to find Erickson flying “this way and that” on his tractor cutting the grass.

Erickson enjoys fishing, too. When he is in Florida for a weekend during the winter, he tries to find time to fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Work is never far away, though. Sometimes, Erickson sits at the dock at the end of the street checking his email with a couple of lines in the channel. 

Erickson has announced plans to retire by June 30, 2014. The Board of Trustees soon will begin its search for Erickson’s successor, chairwoman Karen Peetz has said.

When Erickson leaves Penn State, he has his sights set on traveling. He and his wife had airline tickets for Italy on a trip that had been postponed at least twice, maybe three times, he said, before they finally got away for a short vacation in October. They spent a few days sightseeing in Rome, and then took a train to Sorrento. From there, they took a day trip to Pompeii and the Isle of Capri and spent a few days on the Amalfi Coast. This was their third trip to Italy, he said.

Erickson will also spend a lot more time with his family, which includes a son, three granddaughters and one grandson, in his retirement. His son, who lives in State College, attended Penn State and is a professor in Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

Erickson likes to reflect on his career at Penn State. Every day, the students, faculty, staff and alumni are doing remarkable things to make the world a better place, he said.

“There’s a student culture of engagement and giving that I wouldn’t trade for any other student body in the country,” he said. “There’s a culture of faculty to commitment to students and their learning. There’s a commitment of everyone here to engage in scholarship at its highest level, to look for solutions to some of the most vexing problems that we face on the planet.”

In his three and a half decades at Penn State, the institution has become better and better, in teaching, research, service and athletics, he said.

“When I came here, we were a very good university, but over the last 35 years, we’ve become a great university,” he said. “And we will continue to be a great university in the years to come.”

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