There was a time about three years ago when Rodney Erickson promised to host a town hall forum with students at least once every semester during his tenure as president. To my recollection, with the exception of one semester, Erickson kept that promise. His successor Eric Barron is picking up where he left off, holding the first town hall of his tenure last night at the Hintz Alumni Center. The three Penn State student governments — UPUA, CCSG, and GPSA — and their respective presidents hosted the two-hour event, which was streamed live across the Commonwealth.
“I have one job responsibility: To make a great university even greater,” Barron began. “You see what we’re doing well, peel back the onion and see where we’re not doing well, and then you come up with strategies to do better in those areas.”
Barron addressed three topics — student engagement, tuition, and career success — with each section followed by a Q&A session with questions focused on that particular topic. Questions ranged from the broad (What can we do to encourage diversity at Penn State?) to the specific (Why did my bursar account get charged $700?), but Barron had an answer for almost everything without much prompting.
Anyone who has heard Barron speak thus far in his tenure understands his approach to these sort of events. He has stump speeches for main topics that he recycles to varying degrees at speaking functions (there might be room for a fun bingo card here). That’s not to detract from the importance or the thoughtfulness of his remarks — indeed, of the three Penn State presidents I’ve heard speak with any regularity, Barron comes off as the most authentic. But if you haven’t heard his blue and white sports car analogy for student engagement by now, you simply aren’t listening.
“You bought a blue and white sports car when you paid tuition,” Barron said, again. “Don’t drive it 20 miles an hour. Twenty miles an hour is just going to class.”
As I’ve written before, Barron is analytically minded. Every issue has a data set, and every data set has an answer or justification inside of it somewhere. He wants to “test ideas in the marketplace” — which is something he said he did often at Florida State. He views the tuition issue through the same lens.
“If I told other universities in this state that we had 127,000 people apply, they’d say send some of these people to us,” Barron said. “The cost must have some value; otherwise, why would people keep knocking at the door?”
If Barron doesn’t have the data or an airtight understanding of the issue, he won’t try to bullshit you. Several times, he avoided questions by saying he didn’t have enough information or that the questions were too specific for him to expound upon. Questions on the possibility of a smoke-free campus or getting rid of the alcohol ban in residence halls were met with similar deflections.
“I need to treat people as adults. I also need to be sure I don’t place people in risk,” Barron said. “This is just not a simple issue. I wouldn’t count on any policy changes that are going to come quickly.”
Barron makes noncommittal answers like that seemed informed and genuine, which is remarkable for someone who is clearly not a politician. It’s all part of a leadership style that he says he inherited from his father.
“I have this commitment to thinking strategically and knowing where I want to go,” Barron said. “Every time I had a tough decision, [my father] would say, ‘Can you look at yourself in the mirror?'”
“I frequently sit there in terms of leadership saying, ‘Can I be proud of what I have done?'”