President Erickson Won Crowd at Last Town Hall

The last stop on Rodney Erickson’s three-city alumni town hall tour might well have been his best performance, as the Penn State President fielded questions from alumni on a variety of topics ranging from Joe Paterno’s firing to how a professor can achieve emeritus status.

The event, held Friday evening in Manhattan, featured a less robust attendance than either of Erickson’s Pennsylvania appearances–in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia–but the 300 who made the trek to the Financial District and the Downtown Marriott on a bone-chillingly cold winter night came prepared to ask the right questions.

Compared to the previous two events, those in attendance were less openly hostile towards Penn State’s new President. Rather than coming to seek redress for their fallen hero, the alumni seemed more concerned with the balance of power at the university, and just how Penn State could rebound from the terrible scandal that has tainted it so over the past months.

That’s not to say that the firing of Joe Paterno didn’t come up–in fact, the very first question came from a teary alum who couldn’t help breaking down when she bemoaned the lack of “due process”  for the football coach. But unlike the previous night, the crowd was willing to move on. And Erickson did more than enough to earn their trust and confidence.

In contrast with the steely, almost robotic persona he’s portrayed in the past, the President was affable and likable. He repeatedly proclaimed his love for Penn State, promising that he was speaking “from the heart.” And Erickson was not only willing to joke around with many questioners, but said exactly what Penn Staters wanted to hear.

In his opening statement, for instance, Erickson distanced himself from now-infamous comments suggesting that the university “de-emphasize” football, stating that under his administration, Penn State would be “defined by our athletic excellence,” as well as for being a “academic powerhouse.” Rather than seeing the two as mutually exclusive, Erickson later said that “the two can not only coexist but also reinforce one another,” and blamed the miscommunication on an overzealous headline writer for USA Today.

True, Erickson might not have made many friends in the crowd when he explained why he felt the firing of Joe Paterno was not only just but a “very difficult and in many ways courageous decision”–because, he said, Paterno’s ability to lead had been compromised–but he reiterated his support for the Paterno family on multiple occasions throughout the night, repeating that he would find a way to recognize Joe and Sue for all they’d done for the university, and promising that JoePa’s statue would remain “as long as there’s a Beaver Stadium.”

It seemed the only thing many in the crowd could’ve asked from Erickson would have been for him to speak with the same contempt towards Penn State’s Board of Trustees as they did, though the President explained that, contrary to popular belief, the Board is his bosses, and not the other way around.

Still, he described the balance of power in the Board, with 20 Governor-appointed Trustees and just 9 voted for by the alumni, as a 150-year old “vestige” of Penn State’s founding as a land grant university, and he detailed the process by which that structure could be changed–unfortunately, he said, not without a legal fight. But that didn’t mean this wouldn’t be a “period of introspection” for the Board, a coming time where Erickson vowed he will ask the hard questions himself.

Erickson also said that the next Board meeting had been moved to a larger venue, promising a greater opportunity for concerned alums to “interact with board members.”

Beyond that, though, Erickson justified the university’s PR strategy, which has reportedly spent $360,000 since the scandal broke, saying that although he personally agreed with a questioner who expressed displeasure at Erickson’s apologetic commercials, “part of this process is dealing with the immediate feelings of everyone.”

“There are lots of Penn Staters who are not responsible in any way for what happened and we need to tell that story as well,” the President said.

Erickson also detailed his desire for Penn State to be a leader in combating sexual abuse, citing the new multi-million dollar project aimed at that end and opportunities to include information on abuse in the pedagogical curriculum. He said he was going to “sit down and think carefully about how PSU can be a leader” in that regard, but that in the meantime, Penn Staters everywhere had an opportunity to get involved with any of the dozens of organizations state-and-nationwide which fight for the same goals.

As the event drew to a close, Erickson promised to take the feedback he received back to State College, saying that he had “listened and learned” to the concerns of alums, and it seemed the feeling was reciprocal. Indeed, the President received a standing ovation from the crowd, most of whom would’ve probably agreed that he couldn’t have purported himself much better.

Unfortunately, the story the mainstream media seems content to portray is that even those in New York were out for blood to avenge the firing of Paterno, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. It may have been the case in Philadelphia, but not in Manhattan.  When another alum took the mic to proclaim that “Joe Paterno is not a victim,” and that “for us to think that he is makes us more of a laughingstock than we already are,” he drew applause from a sizable portion of the crowd. Friday night’s alums were much more thoughtful and concerned with the future of their university.

And they came away with reason to believe that it was in the right hands.

“We will move forward as a Penn State community and we will do it with your help,” Erickson said, and many seemed ready to heed his call. If you don’t believe me, check out the video below and let us know what you think in the comments.

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About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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