President Erickson Drops In on SOC 119

November 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm 2 comments

No one seemed to notice the man in the suit milling around at the front of the room. There’s a lot of activity in Sam Richards’ classroom before class officially starts, and between the “what do you still want to talk about” feed scrolling down the right-hand side of the big screen, the reminder on the other half of the screen that Quizno’s was donating a percentage of its Tuesday night profits to The Haiti Project, and the reggae music blasting from the speakers, it’s hard to keep track of everything.

And then Richards started his Tuesday SOC 119 class—the second given over to the Sandusky scandal and its ramifications—with a moment of silence “for all that has happened, and in particular for the people whose voices are very often silenced.” Immediately afterward, he introduced a guest—“Dr. Rodney Erickson, who’s going to say a few words …”

That grabbed the students’ attention. And even before Richards could explain that Erickson is the university president, the students were clapping. Loudly. Some of them even whooped and whistled … for a guy they wouldn’t have recognized walking across campus a week ago.

Erickson immediately made the effort to connect with the students, saying he had had only two hours of sleep Sunday night and four or five Monday night, making him feel “like an undergraduate during finals week.” Then he spoke for about seven minutes, hitting mostly the same issues he’s been stressing since he was named president last week: a commitment to ethics, to examining the governance and oversight of the University “including intercollegiate athletics,” and “to do a lot of listening” to faculty, staff, and students.

“I want you to know that together, we’re going to get through this,” he said. “The Penn State family always comes around, comes together. We’ve had probably the saddest week, the most tragic week, in the history of the University. So we need to move forward, not forgetting the past, not forgetting the victims. … We don’t know who the victims are yet, but I give you my word, we’re going to do the right thing, whatever they need.

“We’re going to get through this. There’ll be some rocky times ahead, but we’re going to do it. We’re not going to stop, we’re going to continue to provide you with a high-quality education, a Penn State degree you can be proud of, and we’ll learn through this process. We will move forward.”

Erickson then took a few questions from students, who asked what he would say to students who are also “townies,” who grew up in State College and knew many of the people involved in the case; expressed concern that Penn State students would have trouble getting internships and jobs because of the scandal; and wondered whether he thought the University moved too quickly considering that more information is still to be revealed. In all, he spent about 15 minutes with the class. Judging by the #SOC119 hashtag, the students appreciated it.

From there, Richards launched into the day’s topic: “The Sociology of Victimization and the Crisis at Penn State.” He covered a lot of ground: what it means to “support the victims,” why so many Penn State students are “exhausted” about discussing the scandal, why the sexual abuse of children is such a taboo subject, and the best way for society to deal with people who fantasize about having sex with children. I wandered around campus after class, wondering how I was ever going to do justice to such complex, controversial issues in a blog post. (When Sam Richards prefaces remarks by saying, “I’m taking a risk here,” look out.)

So I’m going to take the advice the Richards routinely gives his students—“sit with that”—and I’ll be back later with more about the class. In the meantime, you can get the high points from this story in The Daily Collegian.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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