Erickson, a white-haired career academic, answered with a quick and emphatic "no" to a student's question about the firings of Paterno and Spanier. It came during an unusual — and often emotional — town hall-style forum on the crisis of spirit and identity facing the university after former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged Nov. 5 with molesting eight boys over a 15-year period.
"We are likely to see lots of ups and downs in terms of the way that Penn State is viewed and portrayed in the media," said Erickson, who took over Nov. 9. "As various court appearances take place, we will see spikes in opinion across the country. You should all be prepared for that."
For two hours Wednesday night, Erickson and seven other senior university officials faced pointed questions about Penn State's handling of the Sandusky scandal and the effect his alleged crimes have had on the school. More than once, the officials were asked why Penn State's board of trustees was investigating the university's conduct and whether such a probe could be impartial.
The university's board of trustees has appointed a special committee, with former FBI Director Louis Freeh aboard, to investigate the incident. It comes in addition to the ongoing criminal probe by the state attorney general's office. The U.S. Department of Education has launched a separate investigation of the university's compliance with the Clery Act, which requires schools that offer federal student aid to track and report campus crime.
Erickson told the crowd that he has "tremendous support and admiration for the board," and that the makeup of the investigatory committee, which also includes state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis "should give everyone great confidence."
As for Freeh, "he's been given full authority to look at this," and "the results will be public," he said.
A coalition of student groups — the University Park Undergraduate Association, the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments and the Graduate Student Association — sponsored the town hall forum at Heritage Hall at the HUB-Robeson Center on the school's University Park campus.
The session was beamed to the university's 19 other campuses across the state – including Penn State Lehigh Valley, where students also submitted questions to administrators.
Peter Khoury, president of the Commonwealth Student Body and a Lehigh Valley resident, told the crowd that its attendance was crucial because "sharing your thoughts and feelings and opinions as students is essential to this community's well-being."
Two sociology professors, Sam Richards and Laurie Mulvey, moderated the forum. They moved through the crowd with microphones at the ready. More than once, Richards admonished the crowd to become more involved on campus.
As often as the university officials faced tough questions, they were also sometimes asked to play therapist, as when one attendee, her voice choked with emotion, told the administrators, "I feel shame. What do I do with that?"
The answer — after an awkward silence — came from Madlyn Hanes, who oversees the university's satellite campuses.
"I am hoping these horrific allegations and events surrounding them do not define you," she said.
With thousands of students just months away from entering a roiling job market, some in the crowd had more practical questions. Namely, would prospective employers still value a Penn State diploma?
University officials sought to reassure students that employers haven't backed away from their confidence in the university's brand name. Nonetheless, administrators said they plan to meet with employers in major cities to tamp down any skittishness.
"The people who employ Penn State students are very reasonable, insightful folks," Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said. "They do not hold Penn State [students] accountable for these activities. They still understand the value you bring to their workplaces."
Seemingly inevitably, talk returned to Paterno and the long shadow he casts on a campus where he spent decades as head football coach. The administrators moved quickly to dispel rumors that there were plans to remove the statute of Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium or to erase his name from a library on the university's main campus.
"At some appropriate point down the road, I'm sure there will be an opportunity to reflect on the many years of service that Joe and [wife] Sue provided to the university," Erickson said.
Sims said he believes the scandal presented the university an opportunity to refocus on its academics and research.
"Penn State is a truly great university," he said. "It has had a great football program and I suspect that will continue. But I think this is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world how great we are."
Among those university officials will have to convince are state lawmakers in Harrisburg, who have muttered darkly about re-evaluating taxpayer support for Penn State and the three other state-related universities — Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh. Lawmakers may also consider whether to lift the schools' exemption in Pennsylvania's open-records law.
Erickson told the crowd that he'll meet with lawmakers to sell them on the school's value to taxpayers. But he ducked a question about the potential removal of the exemption in the open-records act. The school already posts much of its financial information on the Web and "the right-to-know [law] doesn't mean the right to know everything."
The forum came the same day that the first civil lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia against Sandusky. It alleges that he abused a 10-year-old boy more than a hundred times over four years starting in 1992.
More than once Wednesday, Erickson and his colleagues took pains to remind the crowd that the school was about more than one person. And the circumstances that led to the scandal would never be repeated.
"This will never happen again on my watch," Terrell Jones, vice provost for education equity, said.