Regional Outlook

portrait of Rodney Erickson
James Collins

Rodney Erickson

Sitting on his back deck in rolled sleeves and loosened tie, looking out over his crop of soybeans, Rod Erickson can't resist a few teacherly observations.

"See how they turn their leaves away from the sun?" he notices. "But we've been lucky this year with beating the heat. Some of those rows are waist-high already."

Erickson shared a quiet lunch hour on a hot day in late July, four weeks after his installation as dean of Penn State's graduate school. He made the sandwiches.

He also knows a thing or two about farming, having grown up on a "typical midwestern diversified farm" in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, a town closer to Duluth than Milwaukee.

Despite the isolation, or maybe because of it, he grew up imbued with a lively interest in the outside world.

"I had a fascination with other people and places. My mother was a school teacher, and my parents put a high value on travel. We traveled around the U.S. Before I went away to college, I had been to the East, and to the West several times."

On those family journeys, "I was always the map reader, the navigator, the one interested in geographic relationships—and in economics. I made sense of a lot of what I saw in economic terms. Farmers are entrepreneurs, of course. I watched my father make decisions all the time, about marketing, production . . . I looked at how other people made decisions, too."

It was no surprise when, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Erickson decided on a major in geography with a minor in economics. He stayed to take a master's degree with urban geographer John Borchert.

"Borchert did some of the classic studies on the evolution of the American metropolitan system—the growth and stagnation of metropolitan areas across time," Erickson remembers. "He was particularly interested in the role of various transportation technologies" in shaping this boom-and-bust pattern, as in the case of Altoona, Pennsylvania, "which boomed with the railroads and has struggled to redefine itself for most of this century."

For his Ph.D., heeding Borchert's advice, Erickson went to the University of Washington to study with regional economic theorist Morgan Thomas, and there he intensified what has become a career-long interest in understanding the forces that drive economic development on a regional scale. In the 22 years since he earned his doctorate, those forces—with the explosion of new technologies and the radical restructuring of American industry—have undergone tremendous change. Using various kinds of statistical analyses, Erickson has sought to cut through layers of assumption about growth and provide a sound basis for effective regional policy.

His earliest work focused on the roles played by "lead firms" in regional economies. Lead firms, usually representing a region's dominant industry, are particularly important for the "linkages" they generate—the growth-promoting economic tie-ins to other companies, whether suppliers of raw materials or buyers of finished products. Erickson wrote his dissertation on the powerful impact of the Boeing Company on the Puget Sound region during the 1960s, and quantified Boeing's "growth-leading" effects there and in the rest of Washington state, as well as in southern California and far-flung communities like East Hartford, Connecticut, whose companies built most of the jet engines for Boeing aircraft.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1973, Erickson joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, he continued to study the concept of urban growth centers, a regional-planning idea that had gained considerable popularity among policymakers. The best way to boost the economy of a depressed area, the theory went, was to stimulate growth in its urban centers through subsidies and other types of investment. A city's growth, it was assumed, would subsequently spread to poverty-stricken outlying areas.

"This was an idea that had its roots in Europe, in the French economic school," Erickson says. "It came into the U.S. in the policy sense through organizations like the Appalachian Regional Commission."

In the event, he found, the spreading effects of economic growth were more limited than had been predicted. Among other factors, Erickson demonstrated, many of the new linkages formed by lead firms in urban areas were to companies outside the region under study. "Growth centers in fact served in some cases to disadvantage peripheral areas even more—they became magnets." The growth center idea, he concludes, "was an overly simplistic solution to a very complex problem, and an attempt to transplant an idea from Europe without accounting for the geographical differences involved. In the end it was very weak medicine."

Arriving at Penn State in 1977, Erickson joined the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' department of geography, eventually becoming its head. In 1981, he accepted a second faculty appointment, to the Smeal College of Business Administration. His work on regional growth in the years since has touched on a number of timely issues, including the flight of businesses from urban centers, industrial competitiveness, and the effectiveness of regional economic development organizations. He has done extensive consulting and contract research for federal agencies, Pennsylvania policymakers, and industrial leaders, and worked in Kenya and the Philippines on economic development projects. In 1986, Erickson even examined the economic impacts of Penn State football weekends. ("I have never done a study in which the respondents got so involved," he says.)

In 1982, on a Fulbright fellowship in England, Erickson worked with researchers at Manchester University looking at the changing industrial structure of the United Kingdom, and the regional effects of that evolution. While there, he managed to debunk another popular planning idea: the British concept of enterprise zones. "These had been set up by the Conservative government in some of the worst urban areas, to spur economic growth. The idea was to remove government entirely—take away environmental regulations, taxes, unionism—and see if you could replicate the economic growth of a Hong Kong."

Erickson scrutinized the effects of enterprise zones through the lens of local property values. "Within the zones," he reports, "the market responded in classic economic fashion—the value of the land went up. So a lot of the subsequent growth was windfall profits for whoever happened to own property." A "shadow" effect, he adds, was that property values just outside the zones tended to drop. "I didn't get any Christmas cards from Margaret Thatcher," Erickson says, allowing himself a smile.

The British experience hastened Erickson's "natural evolution" to a global perspective. "I remain interested in the same questions that have always interested me," he explains. "But it is increasingly difficult to understand what's going on in the metropolitan, or regional, or state scene without understanding the forces at work in the international economy."

A research fellowship at the Census Bureau in 1989 gave him access to the kind of confidential data—on individual companies—that is essential for understanding economic globalization at the "micro" level. Since then, Erickson and his students have zeroed in on a number of issues related to the regional impacts of international trade.

A recently completed study provided the first reliable data on import-export patterns between specific U.S. regions and their foreign trading partners. Another examined the potential impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on each of the fifty states. (These impacts, Erickson concluded in a report, "may often be overestimated.") Currently, Erickson is interested in creating a profile of the types of companies that are most likely to be successful at exporting. "If we knew this," he says, "we could help state governments and the feds better target the money they spend on export promotion."

At 48, after more than 18 years at Penn State, he says, "I couldn't be more delighted now to work as dean of the Graduate School.

"We have tremendous resources and potential for research, and priorities that fit very much with my own. And we've got a lot of challenges coming up, increasingly related to the role of graduate education in society."

And then there are those 35 acres of soybeans, which, come harvest, will somehow find their way into the regional economy of central Pennsylvania.

"It's a nice counterpoint for me," he says. "I can do the tillage and planting in two weekends in the spring. And I just love to watch it grow."

Rodney A. Erickson, Ph.D., is professor of and business administration and dean of the graduate school.

Since 1985, the position of graduate school dean at Penn State has been combined with that of the vice president for research, most recently in the person of this magazine's publisher, David A. Shirley. With the hiring of Erickson, the University has re-established the dean's position as a separate entity. According to Shirley, who remains senior vice president for research and graduate education, the move underscores Penn State's renewed commitment to graduate education.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rodney A. Erickson assumed responsibilities as Executive Vice President and Provost of The Pennsylvania State University on July 1, 1999. Executive Vice President and Provost

Last Updated December 01, 1995