Who is Eric Barron, Penn State’s 18th President?

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There will be plenty of time to get to know Penn State’s new president Eric Barron as he leads Old Main and the university over the coming years (we’re hoping “Selfies With Eric” become a thing). For now, though, all we know is what has been printed in the media over Barron’s nearly four decades in academia, along with some anecdotes from his former students.

The Penn Stater (especially) and StateCollege.com all dug up some great content from Barron’s Internet history. The stories paint a picture of a fierce fundraiser, an effective lobbyist, and a respected academic mind — all qualities we hope he brings with him to Penn State.

On Handling Controversies

Florida State football won a national championship in 2013, but it wasn’t without significant controversy. The school’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape, and although charges were never filed, it thrust Florida State into the national spotlight for about a month during the DA’s investigation.

By all accounts, Barron handled the situation very well. His cautious words should come as a welcome sign to the many Penn Staters who have accused current university leadership of acting too quickly and without due process when making important decisions.

“The only thing we say is, ‘Let’s not prejudge.’ From any sort of legal basis, the university is hands-off,” Barron said. “We have to wait for the professionals to do their job and make their ruling.”

Here’s Barron’s statement after the investigation was closed (emphasis mine):

“Florida State University has a primary purpose to educate young people while enabling them to hone their skills and develop their gifts so they can become productive citizens. It is also our responsibility to treat students fairly and provide appropriate support.

“Recent weeks have provided a painful lesson, as we have witnessed harmful speculation and inappropriate conjecture about this situation and the individuals involved. As a result, we have all been hurt.

A respect for the principle of due process is essential to the integrity of our community. Our commitment to each and every one of our students is unwavering and will remain our priority.”

The only other main controversy Barron was directly involved with happened in 2011, when Florida State accepted a $1.5 million donation from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, run by the Koch brothers, well-known conservative activists and political bankrollers. There were some discrepancies about how much control the Koch operation had over the ability to hire professors to teach a new program promoting “political economy and free enterprise.”

Barron defended the course and its policies, although a faculty senate committee determined that some of the curriculum prerequisites were improper. The two sides would eventually come to an amicable resolution, and Barron backtracked slightly after the decision.

“If there is anything that affected academic freedom, I would put an immediate stop to it,” Barron said. “The Koch Foundation did not reject the faculty’s suggestions for hiring.”

“The instruction is: let’s be more careful about how we write these agreements,” Barron said later.

On Fundraising

One of the most important roles of a university president is his or her ability to fundraise. Penn State’s old washboard playing magician was great at this, and it looks like Barron is too.

Barron had a stipulation attached to his $395,000 base salary that he would receive a $100,000 bonus for every $100 million raised. As such, he oversaw the university’s $1 billion campaign.

“Our job is to get people excited about FSU and to connect with people and get to know them and get them to understand why giving is important,” he said. “I have never felt that (fundraising) is a chore. I’ve never felt that it was onerous. I’ve always thought that it was fun.”

“You have someone who can give a very large gift, but you also have 280,000 alumni that, if they gave small gifts, the multiplier starts to have a tremendous amount of impact.”

According to Tallahassee Magazine, in Barron’s first year Florida State saw a “30 percent increase in giving with thousands more individual donors.”

On Athletics

Intercollegiate athletics is important to the heart of any university, but especially at Penn State. Obviously, Barron is no stranger to Penn State’s athletic culture, with more than 20 years of experience at the university. Before we look at how Barron handled athletics at Florida State, this video of the president after Florida State’s national championship — face paint and all — is required viewing.

One of the best stories from Barron’s time at Florida State deals with the school’s legendary coach Bobby Bowden. Bowden was forced to retire early by Barron’s predecessor after 34 illustrious years as head coach. Bowden’s time at Florida State ended on bad terms — he didn’t step foot on campus after his forced retirement — but Barron did his best to make things right by declaring a “Bobby Bowden Day” and inviting the coach back to campus.

“It’s was important to me all along to make that call,” Barron said. “I knew there needed to be a little bit of space for a lot of different reasons.”

“…(so) much of the psyche of the university is tied to this great coach who put football on the map and helped made FSU a household name.”

At the same time Barron extended that olive branch to Bowden, he was turning the athletic department into a financially sustainable enterprise. According to Mike Poorman’s reporting, Florida State athletics lost $9.1 million in Barron’s first two years on the job. The next year, the athletic department showed a $9.3 million profit followed by a $6.3 million profit during the last year. Florida State athletics saw gross revenues jump from $74 million in 2010 to $100 million to 2012.

Barron also fired Athletic Director Randy Spetman, who played a part in forcing Bowden out three years earlier. The decision was part of his five-year strategic plan to bring in a more “business-oriented” athletic director.

Hopefully Barron will be able to dust off some of his old Penn State clothing items from the closet as he takes over the reigns in Happy Valley.

On Lobbying

One of Penn State’s biggest disappointments over the last several years has been the waning levels of state appropriations. Governor Tom Corbett slashed Penn State’s funding by nearly 20 percent in his first year in office. Barron also had to work with a fiscally conservative governor in Florida in Rick Scott, who, along with his predecessor Charlie Christ cut Florida State’s appropriation by 25 percent in four years.

Barron was able to successfully lobby the legislature last year to kick in an extra $15 million to Florida State, and showed his gratitude in an op-ed.

“Now that conditions have improved in Florida, we are poised to escalate our rise in the national rankings with the support of the governor and the Florida Legislature,” he wrote. “They deserve our thanks.”

On Science

Barron brings with him the resume of a nationally respected climatologist. Throughout his career, Barron has served as chairman for numerous committees in service to the U.S. government, including the ASA Senior Review for the Earth Sciences in 2005. As well as having testified before Congress, he has chaired committees and panels of the National Research Council since 1987 and currently chairs “An Ocean Infrastructure for U.S. Ocean Research in 2030.” Before Florida State, he was the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, from 2008 to 2010.

Deep within the Daily Collegian archives, there’s a recap of a speech Barron gave at Penn State in 2005 on global warming.

“No climate model suggests the changes won’t be large,” Barron said. “The debate is how much, how fast and what impacts [global warming will have]. Our crystal ball is very cloudy.”

Barron was also quoted in the Collegian on issues like nuclear waste, oceanic heat transport, and ancient oceans during the Cretaceous Period.

Personal Life

Originally from Lafayette, Indiana, Barron earned his undergraduate degree with honors from Florida State University, receiving a B.S. in geology in 1973. He later received his master’s and doctoral degrees in oceanography from the University of Miami in 1976 and 1980, respectively.

Barron served as dean of the newly formed Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin from 2006 to 2008, and was the director of the  National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, from 2008 to 2010.

Barron is no stranger to the Nittany Valley. He spent 20 years at Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 1986 to 2006, including the last four as its dean. He was also active in the community, even serving on the State College School Board for a time. His two children grew up in the State College community.

Penn Staters will likely get used to seeing Barron’s wife, Molly, alongside him at community events. She was active in many FSU fundraising initiatives, and the couple played a visible role in the Tallahassee community.

“I get the paycheck, she works hard, too,” Barron quipped.

“For our first year we (say) ‘yes’ to almost everything if we can fit it in our calendar,” he said to Tallahassee magazine, channeling his inner James Franklin (no balloons, though). “It’s a matter of exploring all the possibilities. Sometimes we’ll go ‘Wow, we don’t have anything this evening … let’s go watch the women play soccer’ — or we could sneak in a performance of something.”

Here’s a great anecdote from the magazine profile on Barron:

They wanted to get married on July 11, 1981 — the first anniversary of their first kiss — but Molly Barron’s brother couldn’t make it, so July 18 was their wedding date. (Note that their first kiss was nearly three weeks after their first date. “I don’t know whether this tells you — I was kinda slow,” he admitted.)

“We celebrate July 11 as anniversary of first kiss,” he said. “It gives us a week’s head start on our anniversary.”

Their daughter, Emily, was born the next July and their son, James, arrived 22 months after that.

At least Barron was honest about why he’s returning to Penn State.

“I’m not doing it for the money, but I have to admit the money is nice,” Barron told the Tallahassee Democrat. “Here’s the next challenge and it’s a very different model. I think it’s a real opportunity to continue the same path I’ve always taken and that’s to make the institution I work at better…It got to be a little more personal, so I took a look.”

Testimonials

In the time since we announced Penn State’s decision to hire Barron on Friday, I have yet to see a negative comment about the man — which is truly an accomplishment, considering the nature of Internet comment sections these days. The media has spoken to some of his co-workers at Florida as well, and everyone has had nothing but praise. Here are just some of the recent comments I’ve seen, including many who got to know Barron during his first stint at Penn State.

“I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Barron on a number of occasions and he is an outstanding man,” wrote reader Kyle Barnoff. “His work with Earth and Mineral Sciences was top notch. Barron revitalized a college and created a fantastic culture in the process. We would be lucky to have him lead Dear Old State.”

“Eric Barron is the man,” wrote Phil DeCastro. “I loved him when he was dean of the college of EMS.”

“Dr. Barron was Dean of the College of EMS when I was a meteorology student and I was fortunate enough to have a gen ed Earth Science class with him,” said Steve Silver. “It was a relatively basic class, largely comprised of students not in earth science-related majors, but the dean of the college taught it and he taught it with a passion as if it was the most important class you’d take in four years at Penn State. He was super-accessible for a guy who really didn’t have to be (he had a standing challenge to any student who wanted to try and beat him in a game of racquetball, and no one to my knowledge was able to best him), and certainly his resume speaks for itself. I think Dr. Barron’s going to do a heck of a job.”

“I was also fortunate enough to take many Earth Science courses with Dr. Barron, and got to know him well,” said Hannah Munce. “He is an amazing teacher and mentor, and I wish him all the best! So glad he’s back at Penn State!”

“Eric came to FSU at a time of turmoil, and his steady leadership helped us turn the tide,” said Florida State Faculty Senate President Gary Tyson to the Daily Collegian. “Faculty morale is at an all-time high, our academic rank has consistently improved during his tenure, and he was very successful in forwarding the case for increased funding with the state legislature….This is a loss that we all feel, but we wish him the best, knowing that he is going from a family that he has known since his time here as a student, to the PSU family that has been his home for most of his academic career,” he said. “I suppose that we borrowed him from Penn State for four years, and we are much the better for it.”

“I was a trustee when we selected him, and he has been great to Florida State,” said Florida State Vice Chair Leslie Pantin to the Collegian. “He worked to get us designated as one of two preeminent institutions in Florida, got along great with the faculty, hired a very competent athletic director and kept students a primary focus — all which will serve Penn State well with the many unique challenges it faces.”

Stay tuned with us throughout the day as Penn State welcomes Eric Barron back home. The move should become official at noon.

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About Author

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014, and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is a director of the Nittany Valley Society 501(c)(3) and is involved in student government.

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