By Tim Gilbert and Jessica Tully
Rodney Erickson is thoughtful, rubbing the sides of his black coffee mug on his office desk, staring at it until he has an answer. He’s been asked how he has changed during his two and a half years as Penn State president, a question perhaps simpler for the average university president.
But Erickson is not average, nor was his task when he was appointed. He was close to retirement from his role of vice president and provost before being thrown into the president’s position on Nov. 9, 2011, during tremendous tumult. Penn State’s darkest days followed: Criminal charges and a conviction for former employees, its football program nearly put into a coma, a once-sterling reputation smeared, and it was up to the man who’d been on staff since 1977 to see it through. When he accepted the role on that day, he said he did so under “circumstances I never could have imagined.”
And now, his retirement dawns – he’ll turn over the reins to president-elect Eric Barron on May 12.
The writing of his legacy dawns, too, but Erickson prefers to let others decide what that is.
“History is yet to be written,” Erickson said. “But I would hope that my students in particular, students that I’ve taught, advised, mentored, interacted with as student leaders, will remember me as someone who cared a lot about students, cared about the quality of education, wanted to see that they’re well-launched in terms of their future success.”
“That’s about as good as it gets for anybody, I think.”
Ultimately, the watershed decisions in Erickson’s career will be the cynosure of his legacy if others are to decide it. His comments on them during an interview with Onward State on Thursday were staid.
He knew the gravity of signing the NCAA’s consent decree to devastating sanctions in July 2012. He reiterated that it was the toughest decision of his life, a “gut-wrenching” choice.
The signing of that decree resulted in the cutting of scholarships, axing of Joe Paterno wins, a fine, postseason ban, and probation. Erickson said he considered the enormity of no football for the university and community, so he thinks he made the popular decision, given the “time, place and context.” Fighting the sanctions in court was considered, but Erickson said it would have taken too long, further crippling the football program.
“As tough as the decision was, that was the better course of action over the long run,” Erickson said, “And my thinking was really [for]the long run of the university. What’s really the best long-term interest of the university?
Many voices outside of State College believed Penn State’s football program needed to be significantly hurt due to the crimes committed. Louis Freeh and Mark Emmert leveled that Penn State put a reverence for football above protecting the well-being of the young people abused by Jerry Sandusky, accusations not refuted by Erickson and the Board of Trustees in July 2012. Asked if he wished he’d done something differently, Erickson said, “Well, I already said it was the toughest decision I’ve ever made to make. I can’t say a lot more than that. It was a gut-wrenching decision that took place over the course of about a week. And, it is what it is.”
Former coach Bill O’Brien led Penn State football to 8-4 and 7-5 seasons following the sanctions. And fewer than two years after he signed the consent decree, Penn State hired a new coach in James Franklin, who Erickson calls “the complete package.” The sanctions were supposed to hurt the football program for many years to come, yet Penn State’s 2015 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country.
When Erickson decided to have Joe Paterno’s bronze statue removed from Porter Road, also in July 2012, he cited its status as a “lightning rod of controversy.” Still, he’s maintained that Penn State will honor Paterno when the time is right. When is that time?
“I think that’s a question for the Board and for President Barron,” Erickson said.
He also said he was not aware of any discussions regarding honoring Paterno in the last year or two. Furthermore, when asked about a report that Erickson had planned a tribute statement for Paterno following his death but the Board of Trustees axed it, Erickson said he didn’t remember it.
While Erickson faced tough choices in all cases, his decisions have caused alumni ire.
Self-titled alumni watchdog group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship cites the university’s silence to Freeh’s claims as one of its reasons for formation. Moreover, the Penn State administration’s latest approval rating from the Penn State Alumni Association was only 26 percent, although he says that’s not for him to worry about.
Erickson said he doesn’t look back to consider if he’d redo something during his presidency.
“I look forward. You can’t do things differently,” Erickson said. “I tend to be someone who looks forward rather than backward and that’s the way I’ll continue to be.”
Although his contract runs until June 30, Erickson’s last official act as president will be Commencement on May 11. The Class of May 2014 will be the last with his signature on their diplomas.
Erickson’s departure brings with it a new chapter in Penn State’s history. The next president was hired, tasked with providing a new crop of students the tools they need to succeed. In many ways, Erickson believes his successor is the perfect fit for the position.
“He’s very bright, very analytical,” Erickson said about Barron. “He cares deeply about students, he is experienced as a president even though he’s been gone for eight years, he knows Penn State and so we’ll have less of a learning curve that someone else would have had coming from the outside. So I think he was, in many ways, the perfect candidate.”
His looming retirement means Erickson will finally have some free time. One of his top priorities? “Coming home long enough to do the wash,” he said, adding that it was rare for him to have a night or weekend off.
Traveling was a luxury he was not afforded during his time as president. He already has a lineup of places he’ll visit come retirement, making sure he connects with old friends on his journey: Washington, Alaska, Ireland (for the Croke Park Classic), England, Italy, and South Africa.
But no matter where Erickson goes, his heart won’t be far from University Park. He’ll still have an office in the College of Business, where he hopes students will continue to visit.
An academic, Erickson said he looks forward to getting back into research, particularly work he focused on decades ago.
“I’ll probably do some work with an initiative we have at the university called the RDC (Restricted Data Center),” Erickson said. “National Science Foundation is sponsoring the funding of the center here that provides us local access to a treasure trove of data on demographics — social, economic kinds of issues –and it’s data that I started working on 25 years ago when I was on sabbatical.”
Erickson finally ends his pause, looking up from his coffee cup gazing. He’s got the answer to how these years have changed him.
“I don’t really know that it has. It probably makes me a little more…it makes me a little more understanding, a little more flexible, a little more patient in some ways,” Erickson said. “I think any time you take on a new role and responsibility you learn a lot in the process. You learn about the institution, you learn about people, inside and outside the organization.”
It’s the next bit that the greater Penn State community may have failed to realize over the past few years.
“I suppose in this position more than any other role that I’ve had in the university — your life is not your own.”