Six questions for Rod Erickson

President Rod Erickson sat down with a staff member from News and Media Relations recently to reminisce about his life, and the nearly four decades he has spent at Penn State. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Tell me about the path you took from your family farm in Wisconsin to the Office of the President at Penn State.

Well, it was a circuitous one. I grew up on a farm, and my father passed away when I was a senior in high school. My mother was determined that neither my brother nor I would stay on the family farm. My brother and I, in hindsight, both disappointed her because he still farms and I have a farm so she wasn't entirely successful. But I really hadn't thought too much about what I was going to do. I explored a number of majors, like many students do, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I ended up studying geography and economics. Those were the things that intrigued me the most.

When it came time to graduate I had no particular idea of what I was going to do. I think it was in my last term as an undergraduate, during the spring of 1968, one of the fellows I was sitting next to in French class said, 'What are you going to do after you graduate?' I said, 'Well, I'm not sure, what are you going to do?' He said, 'I'm going to go to law school.' I thought that sounded like something good to do, and so I applied and was admitted at the University of Minnesota. I went one term and decided that it was probably not my calling.  I happened to encounter one of the young faculty members I knew from my old undergraduate days. He said, 'How are things going?' And I said, 'Well, I'm not sure this is the right track for me.' He said, 'Well, why don't you come and do a graduate degree in geography?' I said, 'That sounds like a good idea.'  I finished my master's degree in a year-and-a-half, and then it was time to decide once again what I was going to do. My adviser at the University of Minnesota, a phenomenal individual named John Borchert, said, 'I think you should go on for a Ph.D., but I don't think you should do it here.' The University of Washington program was sort of the vanguard of what was called the Quantitative Revolution back in the late '50s and early '60s, so that was the only place I applied, and fortunately they took me. I defended my dissertation on Dec. 20, 1972, and my first job was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I got an opportunity in 1977 to come to Penn State.

It's interesting that I'm probably one of the few people who applied as many times to Penn State to get a job as I did. I applied in 1972, and one of my friends got the position. I wouldn't have been done with my dissertation by the time the position started, so it worked out fortuitously that I didn't get the position. Then I applied again in 1975, and someone else got the job. I applied in 1977 and someone else got the job, so it was actually the fourth time around that they cobbled together the funds to make me an offer.

Q: Back in the 1970s, Penn State was considered 'a good regional, state university.' It was not part of the Big Ten yet, and was not really on the national scene. Why did you want to come to Penn State?

Well, there were a couple of reasons. One, Penn State had a great Geography Department, and for me it was an opportunity to get back more centrally into my own disciplinary area, geography, and what's called regional science. The other thing that was attractive was that one of my colleagues in the same department and one of my very best friends to this day came to Penn State at the same time, in 1977, and was here for about seven years before going to Syracuse University. So he and I continued our joint collaborations when we both came to Penn State. It was a bit of a gamble I suppose, because a number of my friends on the faculty in my neighborhood and riding the bus and so forth that I knew, when they heard I was going to Penn State said, 'Why do you want to go there? Nobody will ever hear from you again.'

Q: What makes you most proud?

What we have achieved academically in 36-and-a-half years, no question about it. We're among the ranks of the best universities in the country, in the world … and of course along with that, the students that we graduated, the faculty who made their careers here and contributed to that. I was trying to figure out one night how many students have graduated during the years that I've been dean, or vice president, provost and president. I figured at one time that I may have shaken about 80,000 hands.

Q: What are your retirement plans?

Shari and I have a bucket list that's probably a lot longer than the number of years that we have on Earth. We have a lot of places that we'd like to go. I've been very fortunate during the course of my career that either working or traveling I've been to over 40 different countries, and there are many of them that I'd like to return to, see a lot more, and of course have Shari with me because she hasn't been able to go to quite a number of those places, particularly in Asia. We've never really done any traveling in South America or Latin America so we've got a number of places there on our bucket list. Then there are places that I'd like to return to in Africa, where Shari's never had an opportunity to go. So we've got at least three different continents, as well as of course the United States. In 1970 we took a long trip. Shari quit her job and about the first of June 1970, we packed up what few worldly possessions we had, and it wasn't many, and put them into storage. We had $1,000 we had saved up and we bought a tent for $99 and a hibachi for about $10, and we headed from Minneapolis west to Seattle, where I had already accepted admission to the doctoral program. We traveled out to Seattle, camped along the way, got to Seattle. Then we drove around the perimeter of the country, down the Oregon coast and through Northern California; stayed with my aunt in Palo Alto and went into San Francisco to see the production of Hair. Drove down the coast road, I guess it's 101 in California down to Los Angeles/Long Beach area, where we stayed with my aunt and uncle there. Then we headed east and we drove through Arizona and New Mexico and stopped and visited some friends in Texas. Went on to New Orleans and Atlanta area, up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Washington, D.C., helped some friends move in Washington. Drove back to Minneapolis, picked up our stuff, hitched up a big trailer behind our 1967 Chevelle and drove back to Seattle. We traveled 13,000 miles that summer and when we were done we had $12 left of our $1,000. We've always looked back very fondly on that extended road trip, so we talked a lot about doing some fairly extended road trips within the country to go back and in some cases retrace part of the country that we visited nearly 45 years ago, and explore some other parts of the country where we've never spent any amount of time. I think I've been to about 48 of the 50 states but there are a lot of places we've yet to see.

Q: Do you plan to resume your research?

I still have my faculty appointments in Smeal and in geography. As I begin to reacquaint in many ways with both sets of colleagues, I'll have an opportunity to really find out if there are some things they're doing where they think I might be able to provide insight. I would of course be very happy to do that.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

No, I never look back. Doors open, you choose to walk through them or not. There's no point spending a lot of time thinking about 'what if.' … It's been a great career. I spent all but four years of my professional life, and a majority of my personal life, here. I don't know what I would have done that I would have enjoyed more over the years. You know, a lot of other organizations come and go. A lot of people worked for companies that no longer exist, for products that are no longer made, for things that are in landfills. The University is a career opportunity where you really have a chance to change people's lives — it doesn't get any better than that.

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Last Updated May 13, 2014