President Erickson keeps Penn State on its path to excellence as he retires

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Rodney A. Erickson prepares to embark upon his long-delayed retirement, one thing is crystal clear: by all accounts, he is leaving Penn State — and higher education in general — in a better state than he found it.

"Rod is somebody who has an extraordinary range of experience in higher education, and he has been one of the most influential people in the history of Penn State in the last 100 years in terms of what he has done to advance the institution," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education (ACE), the nation’s most visible and influential higher education association representing more than 1,800 member institutions.

"Rod is somebody who has an extraordinary range of experience in higher education, and he has been one of the most influential people in the history of Penn State in the last 100 years in terms of what he has done to advance the institution."

— Terry Hartle, senior vice president,
American Council on Education

Erickson's accomplishments at Penn State span more than three decades and numerous roles from assistant professor to dean to vice president for research, to provost and president. Although his accomplishments vary widely in scope and topic, they all come down to one basic goal: to continuously improve the University and its operations for the benefit of the students, faculty and staff.

Black and white photo of the faculty of the Department of Geography in the 1980s.

As a faculty member in the late 1980s, Erickson made lasting changes to the way the Department of Geography ran its internship program.

Image: Penn State

As a faculty member in the late 1980s, Erickson made changes to the way the Department of Geography ran its internship program. "Some of the changes he implemented back then are things we still do today," said Brent Yarnal, professor of geography, chair of the Penn State Faculty Senate and a departmental colleague of Erickson's.

When Erickson became dean of Penn State's Graduate School in 1995, he worked to move all of the school's paper records into digital form.

"We had records going back to first degrees granted by the University, all this paper, and so we went through this massive scanning project to make all of this accessible and to preserve the materials," said Blannie Bowen, vice provost for Academic Affairs at Penn State. Bowen, who at that time worked for Erickson as associate dean of the Graduate School, said Erickson also streamlined a lot of the policies, procedures and protocols within the Graduate School, making them more effective.

"He did the same thing when he became provost. He tried to eliminate as many bureaucratic-type things as possible if they didn't add much to the effectiveness and efficiency of the University," Bowen said.

Erickson's more visible projects in that vein include the Academic Program and Administrative Services Review Core Council process, which he chaired as provost. Under Erickson's leadership, the Core Council process identified more than $25 million in savings achieved by energy savings initiatives, capping some subsidies, closure and streamlining of certain programs and departments, as well as advising expansion and creation of other programs and departments.

"That was very important to the University," said Yarnal. "We were in a budget crisis that was just putting things out of whack and we really needed to carefully evaluate all of our structures and systems here at the University. So he set up a great process and though not everybody's happy with what happened, everybody agrees that we needed to do it and that his leadership through that process was very important."

As president, Erickson charged the Budget Planning Task Force to build upon the work of the Core Council and identify collaborative and innovative opportunities. While the initial work of that task force has been completed, much still needs to be done.

"Over the course of his term as provost and then president, that 15-16 year period, the changes in our budget structure have been monumental. Rod Erickson has been the No. 1 person who has steered us through that and not only kept us afloat, but improved the stature of this University," Yarnal said.

"Over the course of his term as provost and then president, that 15-16 year period, the changes in our budget structure have been monumental. Rod Erickson has been the No. 1 person who has steered us through that and not only kept us afloat, but improved the stature of this University."

— Brent Yarnal, professor of geography
and chair of the Penn State Faculty Senate

Some of Erickson's other notable accomplishments include serving as co-chair on the Task Force on University Cost Savings; launching the eLion grade reporting system, enabling students to get their semester grades more quickly; a reorganization of the Office of Undergraduate Education to improve teaching and learning; a reorganization of the Center for Academic Computing, the first phase in the overall restructuring of what is now Information Technology Services; creation of the University's policy on academic integrity; chairing the University Strategic Planning Council in its development of Priorities for Excellence: The Penn State Strategic Plan 2009-10 through 2013-14; Creation of the Research Commercialization Office; and chairing the strategic planning group to launch the School of Information Sciences and Technology, now the College of IST.

"Rod as much as anyone gets credit for making Penn State a world-class institution," said Hartle. "When Rod got to Penn State in the mid-1970s it was essentially a pretty well known regional university. By the time he was asked to step in as president, Penn State had become a world-class research university known around the globe. As an individual who steadily moved up the academic ladder at Penn State into increasingly senior positions, Rod gets an enormous amount of credit for that transformation."

Erickson tends to deflect such praise, preferring to share credit for these and other accomplishments.

"That's far too much credit, far more than I deserve," Erickson said. "When a university gets to the stage of being ready for that takeoff into the top echelon, into really making that great academic leap forward, I think there's kind of an infectious atmosphere that begins to envelop an institution. We were able to hire some deans who in turn hired department heads over the last three decades that have really been transformative in terms of their academic units. And, of course, I had the strong support and encouragement of Graham Spanier and John Brighton, who shared our common goal of advancing the academic quality and reputation of the University."

Erickson continued, "Similarly, our chancellors at the campuses bring in top-notch division heads, with the mantra of 'Let's really push the envelope here and get things done.' In so many respects they are the ones who made that happen. Provosts and presidents can help set the tone, reinforce the vision and help get the resources that are necessary to do those sorts of things, but it's the faculty, staff and students that really make it happen."

Erickson's collaborative style, and his staunch support of faculty, staff and students has been a hallmark of his leadership.

Madlyn Hanes, vice president for Commonwealth Campuses, knows first-hand about Erickson's support, as he hired her into four different roles over the years. When she was an academic officer at the Delaware County campus (now Brandywine), Erickson named her the interim chief executive officer of Great Valley to help the campus transition from a graduate center to an academic graduate school. She then was named permanent CEO of Great Valley, and with that appointment became associate dean of the Graduate School. When Erickson became provost, he hired Hanes a third time, into the role of provost and dean at Penn State Harrisburg. He then recruited her for her current role.

"His confidence in others is a motivating force -- one that can’t be understated. Rod’s confidence in you often exceeded your own. He brought out the best in his colleagues, and they, in turn, challenged themselves to meet higher expectations. In my case, it was more than encouragement, although there was plenty of it; it was empowering. And I think that was the dynamic between us. It most certainly made me want to step up, do well and ask more of myself," she said.

"When you talk with Rod, he very rarely uses the pronoun I, except when he's taking responsibility for something," said Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University. "He's very much a person who sees his role as helping faculty and students excel at a very high level and have bigger dreams than they imagined."

Susan Welch, dean of Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts, agrees. "Among the deans, he is viewed as extremely supportive of the academic enterprise. He takes great pride in the accomplishments of our faculty and staff, is extremely supportive, and he did all he could as provost to strengthen the academic standing and quality at Penn State."

"More important still was Rod's genuine, deep concern for students. His sincere commitment to their success was evident from the very beginning of my Penn State experience."

— Damon Sims,
vice president for Student Affairs

Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs, feels fortunate to have been able to work with Erickson. "As provost, Rod gave considerable time and attention to my concerns. We had regular one-on-one meetings, and he included me among the senior leaders invited to the Academic Leadership Council, which may have been the first time a chief Student Affairs officer at Penn State had been regularly included in those conversations. Rod clearly appreciated the importance of a seamless approach to the student experience at Penn State," he said. "More important still was Rod's genuine, deep concern for students. His sincere commitment to their success was evident from the very beginning of my Penn State experience."

National impact

Erickson has had an equally positive impact on higher education nationally, particularly through his work with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), the academic arm of the Big Ten. Erickson served on the CIC executive committee from 2003 to 2011 and was its chair from 2007-11. During his tenure, he led the group in a number of initiatives.

"His sense that the CIC should be put on the national stage more prominently because of the role of these great universities was very important for changing the identity of the CIC and I think setting the stage for it to undertake new kinds of initiatives. It's always been very effective but he pushed it to a different level and I think that was very important," said Karen Hanson, provost at the University of Minnesota.

Barbara McFadden Allen, executive director of the CIC, also credits Erickson for the organization's growth in stature.

"I can say without a doubt that he transformed the CIC into the vibrant organization it is today. His support gave me confidence and energy to keep moving the organization ahead. That has translated into literally millions of dollars of value returned to CIC member universities through cost savings on contracts and services, and also through the creation of new efforts that would not be possible without collaboration," she said.

Erickson also spearheaded the development of a strategic plan for the organization.

"That really set us on a more deliberate path to collaboration across our member universities," McFadden Allen said. "These outstanding institutions can be fiercely competitive, and it is a delicate thing to get them all moving in the same direction, at the same time, to the same end. Rod was so helpful – utterly unflappable even when we were engaged in delicate or difficult negotiations."

Thomas Rosenbaum, provost of the University of Chicago, said another way Erickson worked to increase the national impact of the CIC was by "emphasizing the values and ethos of education tied to research – contributions we could make through the discoveries of our researchers and the training and placement of our students, and sharing the various talents of our universities in ways that could not be reproduced by any one university."

CIC colleagues pointed to Erickson as having been the driving force, or taking a lead role, in other major initiatives within the organization, including projects within the Center for Library Initiatives such as the Google Book Search project and reciprocal library borrowing; and numerous collaborative projects in areas related to technology, purchasing and licensing, leadership development, course sharing and global collaborations.

One common denominator in all of these projects was the leadership Erickson provided.

"Whether it was course-sharing, online education, whatever the new thing that year was, we would all turn at some point in time and ask Rod, 'Well, what's Penn State thinking about this? What are you guys doing in this arena?' Rod always had something worthwhile that he could add to the conversation, no matter what subject it was. We worked on so many big things as Big Ten provosts, and it was often Rod that helped lead the discussion," said Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa.

We worked on so many big things as Big Ten provosts, and it was often Rod that helped lead the discussion."

— Sally Mason
president of the University of Iowa

Erickson also played a key role in helping ACE address issues related to accreditation. Federal policymakers rely on accreditation to determine which institutions will be eligible for federal student aid. However, accreditation is done by the higher education community to itself, so some policymakers questioned whether it was as rigorous or reliable as it should be.

"Rod has been involved in accreditation for his entire professional career and he brought a great deal of wisdom to our discussions," Hartle said.

Hartle said Erickson's input in these initiatives is a strong contributing factor in their success. "I really do not know anyone in higher education circles who commands greater respect than Rod Erickson," he said. "His reputation is simply the gold standard. He is smart, he is thoughtful, he is hard-working and kind."


Erickson spent more than 12 years as provost at Penn State, which is longer than typical among his peers, many of whom were moving on to presidencies after three or four years as provost.

"There was some kind of internal clock that was suggesting that was the kind of expected career track, and various people were encouraging me, but I felt a very strong loyalty to Penn State, and to my colleagues here," Erickson said.

Erickson said he did look at a few other positions, especially in the earlier years. "I knew it would take something that was pretty fantastic to induce me to leave, and even as I was looking at a couple of other places, I was feeling very ambivalent about it. At some point I said to (his wife) Shari, 'If I'm that ambivalent about it I shouldn't really be considering things.' " Erickson said that realization kept him at Penn State. "Before I knew it I was one of the longest-serving provosts in the country, and really enjoying it."

Hartle said Erickson's commitment and dedication to Penn State are well known.

"Rod could have been president at a major research university if he had wanted to be. But Rod loves Penn State. He has enormous affection for the institution and he was fully expecting to conclude his career at Penn State as the provost. It was only because of the terrible events that transpired that he became president of the institution that he loves so much."

By all accounts, Erickson would have had a secure legacy as somebody who made enormous contributions to Penn State and to higher education in general.

"But his willingness to take on the presidency at a particularly difficult time, coupled with the gifts he brought to that — his personal integrity, his clear sense of mission, his firmness, and his soft-spokenness with a kind of iron in his spine, really I think is a contribution that always will be remembered," said Minnesota's Hanson. "He showed what was really important about what a fine institution Penn State is, and got the ship sailing in the right direction. It was an enormously difficult task, and I think everyone is just awed by how well he has done."

Sims, who was with Erickson the night he was named interim president, calls Erickson's contributions to Penn State incalculable. "I think he will most be remembered for his willingness to give himself voluntarily and fully to the interests of a great University when that University most needed him, and for reminding all of us that leadership in any university represents a public trust that must be treated with deep respect and managed with utter selflessness," he said.

Eva Pell, recently retired undersecretary of science for the Smithsonian Institution, worked with Erickson at Penn State starting in 1995, and succeeded him as vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. Regarding his presidency, she said, "If you think about the expression 'he's a rock,' it was coined for Rod Erickson. He is strong. He is stable. He doesn't get rattled when things get difficult. And he's thoughtful. He's very analytical, while being a very kind and compassionate person, so the perfect person to take over this ship in uncharted waters and in rough seas."

Yarnal agrees. "I've heard it from everybody, 'Thank God that Rod was the one who took over after the scandal.' "

Erickson, who had begun to plan for his retirement in fall 2011, recalls his decision in early November 2011 to take on the presidency in the wake of the breaking scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

"You can imagine at that time there were a lot of emotions swirling through my head," he said. "When I agreed to do it, I really had no idea that it would be two-and-a-half years. As events began to unfold, it became clear to me that it first of all would be very difficult for anybody from the outside to come in, not knowing anything about the University, and to deal with the issues facing us."

Erickson said another factor in his decision was that due to his administrative roles and particularly his role as provost, he had a greater breadth of knowledge of University operations than anyone else.

"There were areas that I didn't have a lot of experience in, but at least I knew the major drivers and our funding lines and our risks and the kinds of things we needed to do to stabilize, make sure that we were going forward," he said.

Erickson said it became apparent quickly that the University needed the stability of a sitting president, rather than an interim, but that the prospect of having a good pool of candidates at that point in time was not particularly high. After serving as interim for a little more than a week, his appointment as sitting president was ratified by the Board of Trustees.

"I thought, 'Well, this is not going to be a short-term kind of crisis. It's going to be much longer. We've got issues to deal with, we have to make sure things are stabilized before we go out to do a search. If I can have as many of those things completed successfully and behind us, whether it's the (fundraising) campaign or whether it's settling civil suits and things of that nature, the next president can come in without having to face a lot of those kinds of things and can look forward rather than looking back."

Mason sees brighter days ahead for Penn State.

"Penn State will get past this, and I hope Rod will be known as the person who helped them heal, got them through this really tough time — a time that the institution itself didn't deserve, but you know, none of us deserve some of the challenges that we're handed. It's unfortunate that it happened at Penn State, but I think it's fortunate that Penn State had Rod Erickson there, who was willing to step up because he had devoted so much of his life to the institution, and believes in it to this day, and understands that he will leave it a better place. I think that healing has begun at Penn State, and I think you can thank Rod Erickson for that."

As is typical, Erickson credits those around him for the University's ability to move forward.

"Penn State is a fantastic university, because of the people here — students, faculty, staff and alumni. I'm very bullish about the future of Penn State. We've been through a lot but there are wonderful, outstanding days ahead for our University."

— Penn State President Rod Erickson

"The level of resoluteness that Penn Staters have displayed is remarkable. When given this challenge of tremendous proportions they reached down, grabbed their boots, pulled them on and made sure that we continued to do outstanding work and continued to be one of the world's top universities. Penn State is a fantastic university, because of the people here — students, faculty, staff and alumni. I'm very bullish about the future of Penn State. We've been through a lot but there are wonderful, outstanding days ahead for our University," Erickson said.

Looking ahead

Once Erickson turns out the lights in the President's Office for the last time on May 11, he and his wife, Shari, plan to hit the road.

"We 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" both in the United States and abroad, he said.

Erickson's wife, Shari, sees the early days of retirement as a time of transition. "I think it's going to be a huge adjustment for Rod to go from working so many hours a week to really not having a pattern. We do have a little house in Florida that we'll spend some time at, but I really see in the early days to go traveling and to do different things to transition from working too much to not working at all. We want to go to Africa, China, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and we loved Italy so I know we'll get back there," she said. They also plan a trip to Alaska, the only U.S. state Rod Erickson has not visited.

Erickson said he's looking forward to the flexibility of setting his own schedule. "One of the things about the presidency, any presidency, is that your professional life is really dictated — in many cases a year or more in advance. So having that flexibility to really be spontaneous, to say, 'Hey, the weather looks great in the Midwest, let's get in the car, load up our fishing gear and drive out,' is something I'm looking forward to doing."

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Last Updated May 02, 2014