Barron Town Hall Outlines New Strategic Plan
President Eric Barron hosted his third student town hall meeting at the Hintz Alumni Center on Wednesday to promote open discussion on the direction of Penn State as an institution. The discussion came on the heels of the university’s new strategic plan and capital fundraising campaign.
The three student governments on campus — UPUA, CCSG, and GPSA — hosted the event, which was streamed live by WPSU to students across the Commonwealth and World Campus. After CCSG President Shawn Lichvar welcomed attendees to the forum, GPSA President Kevin Horne, who is also an Onward State editor, introduced President Barron.
“Our obligation is to deliver a high-quality education to you, hopefully at a reasonable cost,” Barron said. “And there is an obligation for all of us to make sure that the future of Penn State is bright.”
Barron said this year holds a unique opportunity for the university, as a new strategic plan and a new capital campaign only align once every 40 years. Because of this, Barron focused his initial statement on three themes: access and affordability, transformative experiences, and focusing university talent and efforts in areas of great importance to society.
“Presidents are hired to brag,” Barron said, clarifying that the purpose of his presentation was not to brag but rather to provide insight on misconstrued statistics in order to provide a better understanding of areas to improve.
Access and affordability
Barron outlined the “Plan 4 Penn State,” initiative, which encourages students to graduate in four years without added semesters to keep the total cost of college education low. While Penn State’s overall graduation rate is 86 percent, the graduation rate for federally classified need-based students is only 50 percent.
“Keep your foot on the gas—graduate early,” Barron advised students. Pilot programs to expedite graduation are currently underway at commonwealth campuses, as the average student transitioning from another campus to University Park currently spends an extra semester completing his or her degree.
Barron also discussed the potential for alumni to make smaller contributions to student scholarship funds. This could be especially effective for alumni who cannot afford to create a large endowment, but could pay for one summer class so a student will be on track to graduating in four years.
According to Barron, studies have shown a correlation between transformative experiences during one’s undergraduate college career and lifetime satisfaction levels. “Students that had more transformative experiences as a student were simply happier with their lives,” he said.
Global engagement and digital innovation are major sub-categories of these experiences. While Penn State currently ranks well with respect to the number of students who study abroad, the university ranks much lower in terms of percentages. In digital innovation, Barron asks, “Are we giving you the experiences that allow you to be leaders in this digital transformation?”
Importance to society
Barron defines this category as addressing societal challenges, human health, energy, water, and food security, or driving economic development and student success. “We have a lot of room to grow in terms of Penn State reaching the premier ranks of medical research,” Barron articulated.
Although research on energy isn’t normally the first thing people associate with Penn State, Barron said that the university actually ranks in the top five universities regarding scholarly output in regulation, fossil fuels, renewables, distribution efficiency, and energy and the environment.
Invent Penn State will launch its sixth center tomorrow morning at the Abington campus, and Happy Valley Launch Box will be unveiled later this month. “[Other universities] look at [student entrepreneurship] as a way to make money,” Barron said. “We look at it as a way for our students to be successful…it’s a phenomenal transformation for Penn State to become more entrepreneurial and for our students to become more entrepreneurial and more successful.”
Student question and answer
Barron closed his presentation by discussing implementation of the strategic plan in each college and at each commonwealth campus. “The chancellors and deans at University Park had the exact same values [when surveyed about the importance of each initiative],” he said. “That tells you something, I think.”
Student moderator Lauren Doyle opened the floor to questions from students both attending the event and watching the live stream from various locations globally.
One student asked about the next steps in engaging potential donors, to which Barron responded, “Over the next two months, the Provost and I will travel to about 14 locations around the country to [host] focus groups [with alumni]. I’ve probably spoken to 10,000 alumni, and every month I hold multiple one-on-one meetings with alumni to bounce these ideas off of them.”
The state appropriations bill was mentioned next, in context of the potential to have scholarships matching tuition for need-based students. “No institution educates as many students in the state of Pennsylvania as Penn State,” Barron said, advocating for the university to receive additional appropriations.
A student inquired about Penn State’s continued investments in fossil fuel sources, emphasizing the discrepancies between this policy and Barron’s presented advancements in energy. “Board policy is to maximize financial gain to investors who donate the money to the university,” Barron explained. “No decisions are made except based on projections of the value of stocks.”
To a question about his stark endorsement of education in the arts and humanities, Barron responded, “I think we’re seeing more and more places where the arts and humanities cross into this space…[these concepts] are fundamental no matter what discipline you’re in.”
Regarding partnerships with other universities globally, Barron articulated that administrators “pick universities with which we have true collaborative efforts…[it gets] tricky when Germany says ‘you’re all free’ and Penn State says ‘this is the price you have to pay.’” Although Penn State would like to expand global programming, logistics in cooperating with foreign universities can complicate this process.
Another student asked about opportunities for alumni to donate time rather than funds, to which Barron said that “Invent Penn State will create a program where alumni will donate their time, not their dollars,” and explained that each college has alumni who regularly donate their time and resources to students.
The forum closed on a high note with a highlight of student engagement with state legislature, especially important with this year’s state budget impasse. “One of the things that I like a lot is that students are getting engaged with our government affairs office,” Barron said. “They have an active lobbying group.” Though some topics were unrelated, Barron seemed genuinely interested in considering student opinions in order to develop the best vision for the future of the university.