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One Year on the Job, Penn State's President Takes Time to Look to the Future

by on May 12, 2015 6:35 AM

Time.

When it comes to running an educational empire like Penn State, time is a critical component.

And for university president Eric Barron, the past year has been time to look back to the future.

Barron marks his first full year on the job Tuesday. And doubtless there will be little time for celebration.

He's spent the past 365 days (that's roughly 8,760 hours or 525,000 minutes) thinking about what will be happening at Penn State five, 10, even 20 years down the road.

In an exclusive interview with StateCollege.com conducted last week, Barron talked about his role as Penn State's commander-in-chief and chief cheerleader, during what has been a tumultuous time for the university.

"It's good to have a perspective about the university," he says before adding dryly, "That part's not out there very often."

That's a not-too-subtle jab at the controversies that continue to capture the most attention, perhaps most notably the on-going fall out from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the legal woes of three former Penn State administrators accused of trying to cover up Sandusky's crimes.

One of the first things Barron discovered was a common theme coming from the many thousands of alumni, students and faculty he's met. "This is a group of people that is hungry for good news about what is going on at Penn State," he says.

Barron remembers lots of details (especially dates and numbers) and rattles them off without having to look at notes. He recalls the exact date that he arrived back in town -- April 9, 2014 -- and the day he officially assumed the university's top job a month later on May 12.

This isn't his first tour of duty. Barron first joined the Penn State faculty in 1986 and served as dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences before leaving to become dean at the University of Texas at Austin. A two year stint as director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research was followed by a four year term as president of Florida State University (where some 40 years ago he earned a bachelor's degree in geology.) He also attended the University of Miami, earning a masters and a doctorate in oceanography.

Barron is not shy when it comes to pointing out the good news, boasting that the university received 126,450 applications from prospective students last year. "There is many a university out there that would die for that number of applications," he says, while predicting greater success yet to come. "We will surely cross 130,000 applications this year. In every case; law school numbers, up; undergraduates, up; graduate students, up; Hershey Medical Center, up. These are powerful messages about the Penn State brand and the degree to which people want to come here."

Barron boasts the university just had a fourth year of research expenditures topping the $800 million mark, even though, he says, government research dollars have been drying up. According to Barron, 12 different Penn State programs are in the Top 10 of their respective fields when it comes to funding in the STEM field -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

He proudly talks about the success Penn State has had in attracting companies to recruit its students. "I was just looking at the number of companies that visited Penn State this last year to recruit. Fifteen-hundred of them -- over 10,000 interviews were conducted with our students, Barron recites. "One company after another who says, 'We've narrowed the list of [universities] we're going to recruit at. Penn State's on our list.'"

Barron is just getting warmed up. He points to the Aa2 financial rating Moody’s Investor Services gave the university in recognition of improved governance and management practices.

Then there's the $30 million agreement the university recently signed to promote student entrepreneurship while aiming to give the State College economy a boost.

*****

Barron says his day can begin as early as 7:30 a.m. but he tries not to have any appointments before 9 o'clock so he has "a little bit of time to get rolling."

Time.

And that time is doled out in very limited amounts. "I operate in 30 minute increments all day long," he proclaims. Barron essentially tries to keep meetings short so he can pack in as much work as possible.

Much of the past year has been spent running from one event to another. Case in point: this past weekend, Barron was scheduled to preside over most of the 14 different commencement exercises held on the University Park campus. After shaking what he predicted would be 7,000 hands Barron knew from past experience that his own mitt would be sore -- but it's all part of the job.

"I would say most nights I have some activity, some event, some dinner, some banquet, some appreciation something," he says, his voice trailing off. "The weekend before, I hit five events on Sunday and two on Saturday. It just rolls right along. Humans adapt. You get used to the fact that this is the way your life is."

Finding time for a private life is a challenge, but fortunately for Barron, Molly, his wife of 33 years, is part of the package. "My spouse joins me when we're talking to a donor and she joins me at commencement and she is there with me when we're having an event. If something is going on at the house, she's right there. When she's welcoming students she's giving them hugs and I see it."

The Barrons met in Boulder, Colorado while he was doing postdoctoral work for the National Center for Atmospheric Research. On their first date he took her for an early morning trek into the Rockies. "I think I picked her up at six o'clock in the morning on a hike. And we went up in my pick up truck on the mountain roads and I yawned. And she said, 'So, am I boring you already?' She'd been up very early making a picnic lunch -- earlier than I had. So, when I proposed to her I said 'I don't know where life will lead us but I promise you, you will never be bored.' She says this is the one thing that I really kept my promise on, completely and totally."

Asked what his wife would say about him, Barron reflects for a moment before saying, "She's likely to say that I'm very serious sometimes. Then she's likely to say that I'm capable of focusing on something so directly that I know nothing is going [on] around me. At other times she knows that I can be a little goofy and a little overly cute."

Cute maybe. But never colorful. When asked what hues he would want used to paint his portrait Barron clearly prefers muted shades. "Earthy colors but not bright colors," he says, dressed in a subdued yet stylish brown suit, striped shirt and green tie. "They're just the colors I like and the way that I feel. You know, people want me to put on a very bright tie and it's unlikely to happen."

Aside from his obvious love for hiking, Barron enjoys racquetball (although a shoulder injury has prevented him from playing for the past year). He also likes to read biographies and historical novels.

It appears that Barron's life could have taken a different path. As a teenager, he and his family were serious water skiing fanatics.

"There are some things you couldn't tell by looking at me, like I had an invitation from Cypress Gardens (the now-defunct water park attraction in Florida) to try out for their water ski team when I was in high school. I think that would surprise people," he says with a laugh.

"I was pretty good at trick skis and we used to do family pyramids behind our boat [with] people standing on [our] shoulders." Barron turned down the offer from the Cypress Gardens scout who happened to see the Barron family in action.

*****

Barron made his mark on higher education as a scientist who specialized in atmospheric research and was a Distinguished Professor of Geosciences at Penn State. (You can see his entire 34 page resume by clicking HERE.) Does he miss the academic life?

"I loved the classroom and I loved doing my research but I also love trying to help people be successful and people have to commit themselves to being department heads and deans and vice presidents," he says.

That said, Barron believes that for a lot of administrators the life of a university president isn't as appealing as it once was. "The job is not as easy as it used to be. We are in the mode that for the very first time in U.S. history that people that are in the number two position at a university -- the majority of them don't want the number one position because it's just changed. Your interaction with legislators, alumni, press, students, family, faculty, staff -- you have so many constituents that it's not a normal job."

One of the biggest issues that Barron has grappled with is the on-going divide in the Penn State community. One faction wants to move past all of the heartache caused by the Sandusky scandal. Another, refuses to let it go -- with calls to oust longstanding members of the board of trustees who voted to fire Joe Paterno. The depth of the dispute was one of the biggest surprises Barron faced when starting the job. "I expected [it], but I must admit it was more difficult than I thought it was. It's going to take a long time, I think, before our alumni base is going to be healed on all of the issues that we're facing."

And there have been other pressing issues. Barron has accepted 18 recommendations issued by a task force he set up to deal with sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Another task force is currently looking into Greek life after allegations that members of a Penn State fraternity had posted photos of nude unconscious women on a secret Facebook page.

Barron, who says he is not a fan of the Freeh Report, has promised to review the investigation which was used by the NCAA to impose harsh sanctions against Penn State. There's no word on when that review will be completed.

Then there is the internal feud among members of the board of trustees -- some of whom are seeking to launch their own review of that Freeh Report and are demanding to see documents used in the investigation. Barron recently issued a scathing letter when some of those same board members sued the university in a dispute over trustee elections -- and then asked the university to pay their legal fees.

"The board of trustees is a challenge," Barron states diplomatically. "I have a lot of good interactions with members of the board, but look, there's a battle that's going on there. You're going to bump into parts of that battle. Sometimes you can work to stay out of it and sometimes you're not allowed to stay out of it. So, this is life."

There are on-going calls for the university to return Joe Paterno's statue to its former spot outside Beaver Stadium and more.

*****

Certainly, not everything is perfect. Making Penn State more affordable is another hot topic. The U.S. Department of Education says the national average for college tuition is $7,407. The University of Pittsburgh is most expensive public university with tuition costing $16,590 per year. Penn State is a close second with tuition now pegged at $16,444.

Barron would like to see those numbers come down but he cites reduced funding from Harrisburg as problematic. He quickly points to the cost benefits of a Penn State education. "I think the students see the value proposition is very high," he says. "It's also a bit of a struggle isn't it? Because if we add the state appropriation per student to the tuition and fees per student, we're in the lower half of the Big Ten, but we're in the upper quarter of quality. It takes a certain amount of resources to deliver an education that's in the top 1 percent of the world. And in every ranking I know out there we're in the top 1 percent of the world. Okay? That doesn't come free."

Neither do administrators at major schools. According to Forbes magazine, former Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee earned more than $6 million in fiscal year 2013. He has since stepped down. But there's no shortage of highly-paid presidents at public universities.

Barron earns an annual salary of $800,000. His contract also includes a yearly $200,000 retention payment and other bonuses that puts his pay in the seven figure range. Asked if university presidents are overpaid, he issues a straightforward reply, "Well, you know, a lot of people focus on this question and I guess you have to say that in very many ways salaries are driven by the market and the demand on a job.

"And this is one of those few places where people that aren't giving you direct reports can make more money than you do. Why is that? Should I complain that people two levels below me make even more? There's the marketplace. ... We're looking at a multi-billion dollar enterprise. We'll break five billion dollars probably this year. That's a big number."

Thirty-eight percent of Penn State students come from out-of-state, many from other countries. Barron says diversity is "good for everybody." However, Barron says the university's first job is to accept highly qualified students from the Commonwealth, "... because I think this is the future of the Commonwealth and it's the future of State College and it's the future of Erie and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- that we become more of a driver so the state's more successful, so our population becomes [more] robust right along with the economy and so we're taking our role as a partner with the Commonwealth very, very seriously."

*****

Barron's career has certainly kept him on the move. "I've lived in 11 states, four of them more than once. This is my fourth time in the state of Pennsylvania," he says before adding, "I'm hoping it sticks."

How would friends describe him? "You know, I don't know. I hope they would describe me as very principled and somebody who likes to look down the road and someone who cares deeply about leaving it better than I found it. At least that's what I would hope they would say."

He has four years left on a five-year contract. Would Barron consider staying at Penn State awhile longer?

"Well first of all it's not entirely my decision," he says. "Two, we'll have to see how good a job I do and three, you know, I may be looking for the opportunity to relax a little more than I am, so I don't really think about it.

"I just think about what am I doing now? How am I going to leave this place better than I found it? Where are we heading? What are those areas on which we are going to work to improve upon? And I'm just sort of living that. And so, I'm not thinking four years out. For the institution, I'm thinking out 10 and 15 [years] ... and hopefully setting the right course.

"But personally, I will say that this year went like that," Barron says, snapping his fingers.

Time.

Our 30 minutes is up.

 

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Steve Bauer was the Managing Editor of StateCollege.com. Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy.
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