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'A scholar of the highest order'

Faculty member Rob Frieden retires from the Bellisario College

Rob Frieden teaching
Rob Frieden enjoyed his time in the classroom, embracing "the rigor" of faculty-student interaction while often injecting humor to make more challenging topics easier to understand. (Photo: Mark Selders)

For nearly three decades, Rob Frieden’s identity has been clear and his impact has been unquestionable.

That all changes July 1, when Frieden officially retires as a Penn State faculty member.

Frieden arrived at Penn State as an associate professor in 1992. He taught his last class as the Pioneers Chair and professor of telecommunications and law in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications during the spring semester.

His accomplishments as a teacher and researcher represent a combination of success that serves as an aspirational goal for colleagues at the University and across the country.

He taught more than 30,000 hours in the classroom, consistently sharing his expertise (he was a lawyer for Motorola and the FCC before becoming a faculty member) and an engaging sense of humor. Frieden embraced “the rigor” of the classroom, always wearing a coat and tie and striving to be students’ teacher, not necessarily their friend.

Ironically, Frieden said he would miss teaching the most — and not miss it as well.

I loved that rigor. I aspired to maintain that high level each and every time I entered the classroom.

Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair and professor of telecommunications and law

“Teaching got me here, and nothing can rival teaching, or a courtroom, for that energy, flow and excitement. It’s invigorating, problem-solving and an interdisciplinary interaction. You can’t replicate that,” he said. “But it can also be incredibly difficult. I loved that rigor. I aspired to maintain that high level each and every time I entered the classroom.”

Still, Frieden was approachable. “There are very few people I know who can inject humor into a discussion of net neutrality,” said Krishna Jayakar, professor and head of the Department of Telecommunications.

As a researcher, Frieden authored five books, 29 book chapters and 75 law and peer-reviewed journal articles. Additionally, his work was downloaded 11,280 times from the Social Science Research Network.

“He’s a scholar of the highest order — one of the most prolific and productive members of our star-studded faculty,” said Patrick Parsons, a professor and former head of the Department of Telecommunications.

Frieden influenced many beyond Penn State as well.

“He motivated so many people to want to purse these types of careers — telecommunications and how it intersects with law, how it intersects with society, and how it intersects with ethics,” said Nicol Turner-Lee of the Bookings Institution. “He should enter retirement feeling darn good, because he’s impacted so many people.”

One of Frieden’s educational passions was digital literacy, always striving to help students see a bigger picture.

“It amazes me how apt my students are at hand-eye coordination, texting and how to use their smartphone,” Frieden said. “But, at the same time, they don’t understand the business of it — data mining, information use and so much more — things that really matter.”

What he sees for himself in a few weeks remains unclear, though. He’s ready to cede his position to another motivated, up-and-coming faculty member. He’s secure in his career accomplishments, too. He’s just not sure what’s next … and he’s actually OK with that uncertainty.

“I did not think this would be a one-and-done place for my career, and that speaks very well of Penn State,” Frieden said. “I always felt supported here, and I did my part to promote the brand and promote the school during my career.

“The career-life balance was easy to achieve here. Now we’ll see what’s next, where my pivot takes me.”