Through Systematic Leadership, Eric Barron Is Bringing ‘Great Things’ To Penn State
Eric Barron would love to tell you all about Penn State’s accomplishments during his first year as university president. It’s a lengthy set of triumphs that suggest Penn State is thriving, despite three years of turbulence and a post-recessionary economic climate.
From his spacious office in 201 Old Main, he’s quick to list them off. With excitement, Barron relays that Penn State just passed the University of Pennsylvania in research expenditure at more than $800 million, and grants are up 17 percent. His voice rising with enthusiasm, he notes a record 127,000 students applied to study at Penn State next year, while its World Campus is ranked the nation’s best.
But there’s a hint of annoyance in his tone. Nobody’s noticing these substantial advancements.
“I don’t get to read about it because when I’m talking about these [accomplishments], it’s ‘But what does Eric think about Sandusky,’” he said. “I never get to read that we’re tied with MIT in terms of STEM funding. So you ask me if I’m frustrated, I’m frustrated because nobody in this state understands how great this institution is.”
Barron’s trying to change that, but it’s not an easy task. To do so, he’s not rushing; things don’t change overnight. Instead, he’s assumed a methodical, systematic approach to all aspects of his job. After a year in office, it’s starting to pay off.
A lot has changed since Barron’s last stint at Penn State, a 20-year period that saw him transition from a faculty member into the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. And in the nine years since he left — first to the University of Texas at Austin, then as the Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, C0., and most recently as Florida State’s president for four years — he finds the attitude in State College and in the extended Penn State community has evolved and reflects a craving for good news.
“They’ve seen Sandusky on the front page over and over again,” he said. “Many people in the town tell me that’s starting to depress them. They didn’t have anything to do with him, but they get to read about him over and over again.”
Some things haven’t changed. Barron’s favorite restaurant, Faccia Luna, is still open, and on the few nights he and his wife Molly don’t have an engagement they’ll choose to eat at the relaxed Italian eatery, just as they did on their first night back in town.
It’s been an easier transition for Barron than those he’s made in the past due to the familiarity of the institution. Early in his tenure, he met frequently with outgoing President Rodney Erickson, and the two earth scientists still speak occasionally. But despite these advantages, Barron’s made an effort to meet with a mix of administrators, more than 8,000 alumni, students, and community members to better acquaint himself with its current challenges.
“They’re hungry to hear what Penn State is doing to take it into the future, hungry to hear all of the successes,” he said. “You talk about all these great things that are going on, and over and over again people are asking how come I didn’t know that. The press is dominated frequently by the negative things and the controversial things, and in the process people have stopped getting to the good things that dominate this institution.”
Barron’s new office, a comfortable corner suite that occupies the second floor of Old Main, is also slightly different than those from his past. It’s bigger than his previous one at Florida State, and slightly too formal for his liking, but a redecoration would be costly and time-consuming. Barron doesn’t get to read much anymore, an unfortunate reality of the time constraints of a university president, but a neat stack of books occupy a shelf in the corner. It’s meticulously organized, reflecting the approach he’s taken to handle a number of his hurdles in his first year in office.
One of Barron’s first initiatives after assuming his post was to lay out six major discussion points that would shape the focus of his year. Taking a “systematic” approach, he’s led a President’s Council meeting on each topic, then worked to gather information and outline a plan of “where we are and where we to want be.”
Two of the points he labeled most pertinent, accessibility and student career success and economic success, have launched plans of action including investment and pilot programs.
Among those investments towards economic success, Barron pledged $30 million to spur local economic development, especially through student entrepreneurship and innovation. Later that day, Barron would cosign a memorandum of agreement with the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County in front of more than 250 local business owners, community members, and students.
“We have to foster the translation of that $800 million [research expenditure] into the market place. It’s good for the state, it’s good for the faculty, it’s great for the students,” he said. “Now we have a third piece, it’s putting that research into the world. It’s hard not to do this.”
Under Barron’s leadership, Penn State has created a host of programs for student entrepreneurs to thrive. One of those is the Summers Founders Program, which will give teams of student innovators a $10,000 grant to work on their original startup for a summer. The university is also in talks with a downtown building to create a physical space where students can gather to work on these projects in an effort to replicate hubs of innovation on the west coast.
“We want you to walk off campus and we want you to feel like you’re creating your company within the community.”
Barron’s organized approach is further mirrored in his calculated question-answering technique. In a 35-minute interview last week, he would begin many of his answers with an “Ok, so…” before pausing and dividing his response into numerous segments, starting broadly, then ultimately returning to the specific inquiry. He describes himself as a sponge, soaking up information from the diverse people he meets with.
Barron wants to be seen, and has made efforts to become a visible president. He’s hosted several town halls in which community members and students are urged to speak with him on a specific topic, and he’s started to host student groups at his house for dinner. When he speaks at alumni events, he tells them to feel free to ask a question on any subject. On the rare nights he and his wife are free, and not eating at Faccia Luna, they’ll pick a Penn State event to attend, or wander around campus to mingle with passersby.
“It cheers you up right away,” he said. “I was freezing cold, but to see Julius Caesar perform on Old Main lawn, it was like, ‘Okay, I’m part of a special community. There’s no place like this.'”
He’s also sent out a series of online messages to the Penn State network so it knows what its president is thinking.
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “How do you connect with the vast majority of students?”
One of Barron’s first messages preached civility, both in dealing with the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal as well as in everyday discourse within the community and on social media. A short three months later, Barron himself was the direct victim of uncivil behavior.
After a week of “die-ins” swept campus in protest of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Barron was photographed with his hands raised in front of Old Main with a group of black students. The new president was torn apart over social media. Commenters used it as an opportunity to suggest he didn’t support the police, and spewed racially insensitive remarks. To Barron, it was an example of the irresponsibility of the media, and a failure to address the most salient issue at hand.
“If I were to be disappointed in one thing, it’s over the fact that the media wanted it to be one thing and controversial to support police or not support the police, do you support the judicial system or do you not support the judicial system,” he said. “I saw a lot of postings that created a system of vulnerability amongst a group of our students, and not a small group of students.”
“That sense of vulnerability, that was the story. Why did everybody fail to address the story of vulnerability,” he asked. “Was I surprised? Yes, I was surprised that the topic wasn’t the hate messages.”
Then in March, the university was rocked with its next scandal: Allegations that fraternity Kappa Delta Rho hosted a Facebook page containing nude photos of unconscious women. Again, Barron has taken a patient, methodical approach in his proceedings.
“I’m a big fan of following process and doing it right,” he said. “There are a lot of people that want me to rush, and then tell you how dare you not rush. And then when you rush and do it imperfectly, they say how dare you did that. So if I’m going to get pounded twice, and that’s a potential, I might as well get pounded just once.”
This week, the university completed its student conduct investigation into the fraternity. Barron, as always, will proceed in an orderly fashion.
“We’ve been going through that process very systematically, so the next step is to go to the IFC, and the next step is the university’s honor court system based on individual actions that are based on investigation.”
In the ensuing aftermath of the allegations against KDR, Barron created a task force to evaluate Greek life at Penn State. It’s another example of his dedication to act immediately, but not jump to a hasty final conclusion. Instead, he’s working to get to the bottom of the issue. It’s a method that he thinks has already reaped rewards. In the span of a year, Barron helped spearhead a task force into sexual assault on campus. After reviewing its findings, he accepted all 18 of its recommendations.
Two weeks ago, eight sexual assaults were reported in an eight-day span. It’s a terrible reality, but, said Barron, the fact they’re now being reported in number is an early indicator of the task force’s success.
“If you do a better job, you’ll get more reports,” he said. “And that will be painful, but at the same time you’ll come closer to a solution. As has been reported, we have moved now to a professional investigation model. I think that will be successful for a lot of students.”
And then there are the legacies of Sandusky and Paterno, of which Barron is forced to answer constant questions. At a press conference at Yankee Stadium minutes before the Pinstripe Bowl kicked off, Barron found himself answering a longwinded query about replacing the legacy and influence of the longtime head coach. As the question wound on, clearly looking for a specific answer, Barron had a wry grin on his face, as if to say, “Can’t we just move on?”
Barron has said there will be a time and place to speak about Paterno. Even now, in the face of the great progress Penn State is making, he still finds himself answering petty questions about the statue that once stood in front Beaver Stadium.
“People have very strong opinions right now,” he said. “I think all of these strong opinions are based on their love of the institution, and I think that’s fascinating. I think we will work through this, I don’t want to minimize the issue in any way. What I do find is unfortunate is that I have a year of phenomenal things that happened in this institution–”
He continues to list off even more accomplishments, before saying that it’s often followed by a question about Sandusky, and that’s what will be reported in the press.
“My personal feeling is history is going to create a correction to what has occurred. The remaining legal cases are going to create a correction to what people think and how they’re thinking.”
Now, Barron’s own leadership is in some ways turning on him in the sinuous aftereffects of the scandal. Seven alumni-elected members of the Board of Trustees have taken legal action against the university, upset that they weren’t granted access to privileged material from the Freeh Report.
“I do not get to tell the trustees what to do,” he said, noting that he’s never dealt with such action before. “They will do as they will do, my job’s the same. My job is to help our students be successful, my job is make sure this university is accessible. I have to focus on these other issues.”
Board shenanigans aside, Barron’s focus remains on bettering the university. Ever the pragmatist, he’s laid out around 10 strategic goals for the coming year that will both follow through on previous initiatives, while also looking at new angles to approach the future.
“The Board of Trustees is going to look at them and have their own thoughts. And then,” he said with a grin and a pause, “I’m going to give them to you.”
Photo: Steffen Blanco