Eric Barron, Leading Penn State With Poise
Eric Barron has been Penn State’s 18th president for four months and 13 days. Each of those days has held a packed schedule, so much so that the 62-year old geoscientist doesn’t plan on taking breaks until after the football season. Of course, that’s part of the job description for the first post-scandal, externally-hired president of Penn State — he has ambitious accomplishments in mind, and he needs to lead a still-divided Penn State community toward them.
Despite the gravity of his position, Barron was loquacious when he answered questions last week in his Old Main office. It wasn’t surprising; Barron’s July presidential address to the Board of Trustees, used as nothing more than a brief update on recent university successes for years in the past, was 45 minutes of comprehensive pragmatism and entertained questions at its end. The interview and address style are microcosms of the broader philosophy with which he performs his duties here — being open and visible around campus, he’s displayed a real attentiveness about the nature of Penn State’s community. After all, Penn State’s strong community sense is what brought him back to Happy Valley in the first place.
“I would say, in the very simplest way, this place has an attitude about getting better,” Barron said. “My sense is, you’re constantly hearing it. ‘Oh, I’m doing this,’ or, ‘Oh, I’m getting the next grant.’ Over and over again. ‘Oh, this is what we got for THON? The next year we’re going to get more.’ It’s kind of an attitude about the place that is really, really, really nice. Not every place is quite that way.”
Barron’s put some plans into action since he took the Old Main office. He brought six points for discussion to Penn State, all of which he will address to the board at its meetings. In addition, he launched two task forces in July to combat the issues of sexual assault and health care costs.
But it’s the measures he has taken to bolster that sense of community that are more unique. From what he learned about community-building during his time at Florida State, he bought shirts, color-coded by college, for freshmen at their convocation in August.
“My next job, off to a big university, was, how can you scale it? What can you do that does that,” Barron said. “So, student engagement activities build community and make people cluster…OK, well, T-shirts at convocation. Same idea.”
Barron said he watched freshmen stand up and search for others in matching shirts at convocation. And after, during their first HUB Late Night, students with the same shirts clustered together.
“So here it is. You have a natural connection — ‘I wanna be an engineer’ — and we [didn’t] use it as a way to connect with people until you’re a junior,” Barron said.
Two weeks later, Barron made his most vocal community step.
When Barron sent his letter and video on civility, it wasn’t sent to one side or the other of the “move on” debate. And he certainly didn’t expect that national outlets would pick up the story.
“My view was, if the university’s going to talk about things, we ought to do it in a manner where you can talk about it,” Barron said.
He brought up the shows of incivility at the Rutgers game as just one example of what disrespect can do to a community. Still, the letter and video drew skeptical responses. To those who think he shouldn’t have sent the letter: “You feel free to be passionate, you feel free to be adamant, but you don’t have to put other people down in the process.”
“What you realize is that we have a little bit of a cultural issue where out of our mouth comes something that you know mom wouldn’t be so proud of,” Barron said. “And I just think we can do a lot better.”
Barron speaks articulately, but he isn’t carefully measured like a politician. He also isn’t afraid to ramble or think out loud. To call last week’s 43 minutes (scheduled for 30) in his office an interview isn’t quite accurate; it felt like more of a conversation about Penn State. When we walked into Barron’s office, he busted our chops about the laidback nature of Onward State compared to the Daily Collegian, with which he interviewed a few weeks prior.
Again, it’s a change from the tact of his predecessor. Barron didn’t always give perfectly direct answers, but he was willing, even eager, to discuss tough topics.
What’s more, Barron is aware of the enormous import of November 2011 and the events it caused and recognizes the tightrope he must walk when discussing them.
“I have lots of personal opinion, but I wasn’t here and didn’t live through it,” Barron said. “I felt it because I did 20 years at Penn State. I know what this institution is like, and how good it is. There’s nobody that can touch this institution without having that become a very serious part of your thought-process.”
He was the Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences here from 2002 to 2006; before that, he was a professor. During that time, Joe Paterno’s players in Barron’s classes often met with him, where they promised they would never again miss class and fail to make up their homework. That’s who he credits with Penn State football’s phenomenal academic numbers, and that’s how he defended the hire of Athletic Director Sandy Barbour in spite the poor graduation rate numbers the Cal football program displayed under her tenure.
“Take a look, and have you ever heard of an athletic director to get credit for a high graduation rate, ever? I can’t think of any,” he said. “Now, tell me, of the high graduation rates at Penn State University, historically at football, who’d you give credit to?”
“Me too. Me too.”
That said, Barron still doesn’t know when it will come time to honor the coach.
“You know, it’s amazing,” Barron said when asked what time it would be. “Because when I came in the door, a lot of people asked me that question. And I said I wouldn’t mind having a little time. And then I realized that some people thought two months was enough and I should go launch into an answer. So I’m not going to give you an answer either.”
“It takes time.”
There will never again be circumstances surrounding a Penn State presidency like the ones during Rodney Erickson’s tenure, nor will there be a president more scrutinized. During his transition to Penn State, Barron and Erickson spoke in depth. But they never talked about “baggage.”
“We talked about the financial health of the institution, we talked about enrollment, we had conversations about development,” Barron said. “So, the full range of topics occurs in there. I can’t ever remember a comment about baggage or, ‘you should do this to handle something.’ And I don’t think that kind of terminology or even thought to connect with that terminology in any way, shape, or form.”
Erickson’s greatest point of criticism from the community was his signing of the consent decree that damned Penn State’s culture, which still remains controversial even after the lifting of the football sanctions. While application numbers returned to normal and Penn State stayed the same core institution that it had always been under Erickson, his association with the Freeh Report, sanctions, and consent decree is inseparable from his legacy.
But Barron never line-itemed Erickson’s decisions during the times of tumult. Attempting to attain perfect hindsight is less useful than preparing for a curveball, he said.
“Was there an advantage for me sitting [at Florida State] thinking about Bobby Bowden being fired? Or as director of a national lab making a budget decision, would I make the same decision? I didn’t think about that,” Barron said. “I walked in there and said, ‘Okay, I have to balance the budget and here are the downstream liabilities that were created. And that’s too bad that the budget went this way, instead of that way. What do I do?’ Because you’re living in the midst of the decisions.”
“I don’t think so far I’ve had the luxury to sit back and say, ‘I think I’ll analyze who did what, when.'”
At Florida State, where a new president was finally named this week, Barron had no seat on the Board of Trustees. That board had differences much broader — with only 13 members, it’s about a third of the size of Penn State’s board if expansion reformation is approved in November. Beyond that, it didn’t have members elected with the help of endorsement groups and agendas on either side of a “move on” debate.
On reform, Barron said board size is not the right question. Rather, size depends on what a board wants to accomplish. The size is a function of how involved a university believes the board should be on the topics its committees task.
“I am very cautious not to tell what is the equivalent of my bosses how they should do their business,” he said.
Following that, Barron declined to offer the board advice on its members’ interests when asked if he hoped for more board uniformity, instead noting it’s a good thing that members of the board have things that are important to them — so long as they vote with what they believe are the best interests of Penn State in mind.
To that end, Barron has had a one-on-one interview with “23 or 24” trustees, some more than once, including all of the newest ones, each lasting at least 30 minutes.
Anything interesting come out of those?
“Yeah,” Barron said. “I like ’em. The basic foundation these people all care about is Penn State. Period. And that’s a good foundation to build from.”