Barron’s era at PSU begins amid challenges

STATE COLLEGE – When Eric Barron was hired this week to be Penn State’s next president, he said he hoped to strengthen the institution, starting by learning for himself about conditions at the university where he worked as a professor and dean for 20 years.

Even before he takes office by mid-May, Barron can expect to hear from students, alumni, employees and Nittany Lions football fans, many who will place fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal high on their list of concerns.

In the near term, Barron said, his focus will be on listening.

“The truth of the matter is, the first thing I’d like to do is tap each dean on the shoulder and say, ‘I’d like to spend a half-day with you,'” he said, hoping to learn what he needs to know to lead one of the country’s largest and most prominent universities.

Barron, 62, will be returning to Penn State from Florida State, where he has been president for four years.

He takes over an institution with 98,000 students at 20 campuses, more than half a million alumni, a $4.3 billion budget and an unresolved question about how to address the legacy of longtime football coach Joe Paterno, whose statue was removed from outside the football stadium soon after Sandusky’s conviction in 2012.

“Without question, the first challenge he faces is tackling the issue of Joe Paterno,” said trustee Anthony Lubrano. “He and I will be having conversations, no question about it. And I will share with him what alumni all over the country have shared with me. Unless and until we address the elephant in the room, it will be very difficult for us to move full speed ahead.”

Philip L. Dubois, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said Barron’s listen-first approach makes sense, comparing it to what he went through when he returned to his school after serving as president of the University of Wyoming.

“Even though I knew a lot about the institution, much had changed, the political environment was different,” Dubois said. “In terms of, for example, getting to know the people who are working with you and assessing their strengths and weaknesses and whether they want to make some changes, it just takes time.”

Barron needs to demonstrate a vision of academic excellence and offer new ideas about how to run the school cost-effectively, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit education policy group.

“The last thing that a university like Penn State, which has had some very significant issues, the last thing it needs is a guardian of the status quo,” Poliakoff said. “I’m not suggesting that he start a rumble, but it’s really important for the president to be a leader of the faculty – not just a fundraiser.”

In an open letter posted on Florida State’s website Tuesday, Barron pointed proudly to, among other things, its highest-ever ranking among public universities, a fundraising campaign that has been progressing ahead of schedule, improved faculty morale and last month’s national championship in football.

“This is a far different picture than in 2009 when we were losing faculty to weaker schools and we were struggling to manage repeated budget cuts,” Barron wrote.

The Barron era at Penn State begins as state lawmakers are considering whether to force more changes to the composition of the Penn State Board of Trustees, a body that has been criticized for not being more engaged in the lead-up to Sandusky’s arrest. The university has adopted most of the changes suggested in a 2012 report by former FBI director Louis Freeh, but more could be coming.