By Rodney Erickson’s own admission, it is unusual for the president of a major university to be an active farmer.
But there Erickson is on a Saturday, stepping down from his John Deere tractor to talk about the soybean crop he plants in the fields at his Ferguson Township home.
Maybe it’s strange to see the outgoing president of Penn State standing there in his work boots. But it’s not out of the ordinary for Erickson, who has been doing this for longer than he cares to remember.
For as long as most at Penn State can remember, Erickson has been planting seeds of another kind, helping foster an environment of learning and research that has seen the university climb the ranks among its peers.
As of Monday, he can sit back and watch as those seeds continue to take root and grow.
Erickson will preside over commencement ceremonies Sunday, watching another batch of students, of whom he is so fond, graduate from Penn State. That will be his last act as president and the end of his career at the university.
“I think when I came 37 years ago, we were a very good university,” Erickson said recently. “I think 15 years ago, we were an excellent university. I think today, by any measure and validated by any number of rankings, we’re a top 50 university in the world.
“I look back on that with a great deal of pleasure and a great deal of pride at what people have accomplished,” he said. “And if I’ve had some role to play in providing leadership and making it possible for people to do those kinds of great things, then that’s my satisfaction.”
Erickson’s accomplishments at Penn State span more than three decades. He started as an assistant professor in 1977 and worked his way to executive vice president and provost, where he served as the university’s chief academic officer for 12 years.
In November 2011, he was appointed president, going on to serve in that role in the most tumultuous time in the university’s history, as Penn State dealt with the immediate fallout of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
Erickson’s peers and colleagues have been effusive in their praise for how he has steered the university through difficult times, even as alumni appear to remain divided about what his legacy should be.
“Even in normal times, Rod Erickson would have been an excellent president for Penn State,” said former university president Bryce Jordan.
“In the difficult period during which he has served as the university’s leader, he has been superb,” Jordan said. “He has paid attention to the academic quality of the university and, in addition, has shown a calm, even-handed, cool-headed presence. He has faced withering, undeserved criticism and kept a steady hand on the tiller. The institution has continued to excel in teaching, research and service.”
‘Most tumultuous period’
On Nov. 9, 2011, reeling from Sandusky’s arrest days before and broiling under the intense spotlight of the national media that followed, Penn State removed legendary football coach Joe Paterno and president Graham Spanier from their jobs.
Students rioted. Alumni despaired.
The university needed leadership and stability. Although the circumstances could not have been less desirable, Erickson accepted the job.
“He knew he was going to take a load of crap for it, which he did, and very unfairly in many cases,” said Michael Dooris, executive director of the Penn State Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment.
“He knew that was coming, but did it anyway,” Dooris said.
Weeks and months of turmoil followed.
Paterno died, Sandusky was convicted and Spanier and two other top administrators were charged. The university-commissioned Freeh investigation implicated Paterno and the others in a cover-up, and the NCAA handed down historic sanctions that stripped Penn State of scholarships and some wins under Paterno and levied a $60 million fine.
Erickson’s decision to acquiesce to the sanctions through a consent decree, and the board of trustees’ acceptance of the NCAA penalties and the Freeh report, helped create a rift among alumni that is still smoldering, if this week’s trustees election was any indication.
When asked about decisions he’s made that have upset alumni, Erickson said:
“I think individuals will have to make up their own minds about those kinds of things. When you’re sitting in this chair, you have to make decisions based on the information that you have available in the wider context of Penn State and beyond.
“I made those decisions based on the information that I had and what I believed was in the best long-term interests of the university. I’m not by nature a person who spends a lot of time looking back and dwelling on the past — I tend to be a person who looks toward the future, and that’s what I do.”
His colleagues were not shy about expressing their opinions of how Erickson has done as president.
“Rod Erickson deftly and courageously guided this university through the most tumultuous period in its history,” said Doug Anderson, dean of the College of Communications, who is also retiring this year.
“He has unselfishly sacrificed more — with dignity, resolve, integrity and level-handedness — than anyone in the nearly 159-year history of this great institution. And he is living proof that nice guys can — and do — finish first.”
In a time when it’s becoming less common to stay in a job or with an employer for more than a few years, Erickson is a throwback.
Dooris noted the outgoing president’s loyalty to Penn State, saying Erickson didn’t have to remain provost here as long as he did.
“He could have been a president at any of several other universities, but he chose to stay, even when headhunters were calling him with opportunities,” Dooris said.
“He was happy being a provost. Rod was always very interested in students and teaching, in the academic side of the university. He wasn’t looking for the next big job, or having everybody know he was the smartest guy in the room — although quite often he was.”
William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, called Erickson a top-notch scholar and researcher who exhibited creativity and “level-headed leadership” — and who wasn’t afraid to take a chance.
“What makes Rod somewhat unique, in my view, is that while he is somewhat circumspect, he is very willing to take calculated risks,” Easterling said.
“As deans, we know we can take a well-thought-through idea to him and he is willing to invest in it for the sake of keeping Penn State out there on the leading edge. In a time in education when the trend is toward retrenchment and budgetary regression, it’s wise to sometimes be willing to take a risk.”
He said one of Erickson’s “crowning achievements” was the establishment of inter-disciplinary research centers, including the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, which Easterling formerly directed.
Robert Pangborn, vice president and dean of undergraduate education, said Erickson has been a proponent of global outreach and was a driving force for Penn State’s involvement in the Worldwide Universities Network.
“Rod has always earned and enjoyed the respect of his peers and other colleagues at each stage of his career: fellow faculty, deans and members of the President’s Council, his counterparts in administration (vice presidents for research early on, and then provosts and presidents) at the Big 10 schools,” Pangborn said in an email.
“Rod has a tremendous ability to absorb information, data, the context and key nuances that factor into an understanding of issues. That command of information allows him to identify the most significant aspects and to sort out what is most important to focus on.”
‘I’ll miss the students’
Dooris praised Erickson’s commitment to working with students, engaging with them and listening to them.
“He had a blue-collar background, and he believed in the mission of higher education, and giving opportunities to people who might not otherwise get them,” Dooris said. “He saw education as a path to social mobility. That’s part of his values system, and part of why he was so good at a place like this.”
Erickson himself said one of the joys of being president was that he had more interaction with students than when he was provost.
“I’ll miss the students a lot,” he said.
As his presidency ends, Erickson can point to records in the number of potential students applying to the university and the amount of money alumni are willing to give to Penn State.
“I would certainly agree that a great deal has been accomplished here,” Erickson said. “Other university leaders who we interact with, who come here, are literally amazed at how (much) we accomplished within a couple of years. And that would have not been possible without (the) truly outstanding team that we have here.
“I am privileged to work with what has to be one of the premier leadership groups of any university in the country. I wouldn’t trade my group for any other. They are just superb ...
“It’s their legacy just as it is mine.”
That legacy, Easterling said, is likely to change in time.
“Because he is so understated, people outside the immediate Penn State community tend to undervalue Rod a bit,” Easterling said.
“But that, to me, is something that will change through the years. As people gain more understanding about what he did, they will realize that he was acting logically and with the university in mind always, and dealing with the hand he was dealt. The community here feels a debt of gratitude for what Rod has done that we’ll never be able to repay.”
‘It’s a change of life’
Erickson isn’t going to disappear.
He’ll have an office in the Smeal College of Business building. He’ll stay on the board of the Hershey Medical Center.
But travel plans await. Erickson and his wife, Shari, expect to visit the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and later Ireland, England, Italy and South Africa.
“So we’ll be home long enough to wash clothes,” he said.
There will also be more time for the farm.
“I think most of my work now will be engaged in deferred maintenance — things I haven’t had time to do,” Erickson said. “There is a lot of maintenance required just to keep the brush from taking over, keeping fruit trees trimmed. I want to re-establish an orchard.”
For now, though, Erickson is finishing packing the last 37 years of his professional life into boxes and contemplating his bittersweet goodbye.
“When you walk out of the office, it’s a change of life.”