HARRISBURG – Penn State’s next president is ready for the spotlight to shift away from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and on to the many things Pennsylvania’s largest university has to offer.
In a phone interview Friday from Florida, president-designate Eric Barron found several different ways to deflect questions about divisions among alumni and others in the university community over the NCAA penalties against the football program, the treatment of Joe Paterno and the structure and role of the board of trustees.
“There’s more for me to learn,” Barron said when asked if he thinks the NCAA’s four-year postseason ban, $60 million fine and other sanctions are appropriate. “I’m not sure my personal opinion as a Penn State fan from afar has value there.”
He said the presidents of all major institutions have to think about the relationship between big-time sports and the wider university – a balance that was criticized by the NCAA when it announced the penalties against Penn State in 2012.
Barron, currently wrapping up his duties as Florida State’s president, said he made a point to meet personally with tutors and advisers for the athletics program there because their role had been a problem in the past. He said he did not want those tutors to feel as if the fate of the team was on their shoulders.
Major college sports, he said, represent a front door to the public, and football is the main reason why alumni return to campus.
“We want to make sure that door is welcoming and projects a great image,” Barron said. “On the other hand, you’ve got an incredible marketplace out there that is driving the value of coaches’ salaries, is driving revenues for athletics and that if you step back, it’s hard to imagine that we got to the place we’re at.”
Barron said his goals include increasing student engagement, as there is evidence that students perform better, are happier and get better jobs if they participate in worthwhile activities outside the classroom.
He also aims to improve their career success and to do more to capitalize on the intellectual property the university produces.
College affordability is also in his crosshairs.
“You’re serving the state of Pennsylvania, and the university is expensive,” Barron said. “Are we doing all the things that we can and want to do to make sure that no one decides against Penn State because they can’t afford it?”
As one of four “state-related” universities in Pennsylvania – Temple, Lincoln and Pitt are the others – Penn State is not publicly owned but has a quasi-private structure in which the governor appoints several members of the board and the school gets hundreds of millions of dollars in state financing. Barron indicated he was not likely to support a change of that status.
“The highly ranked publics, they have some level of partnership with the state, and they also have a higher level of independence than many other public institutions,” he said.
Once he gets to State College, Barron plans to visit each of its colleges and all of its many campuses spread around the state.
He spent 20 years at Penn State. He joined the university’s faculty in 1986 as director of the Earth System Science Center and associate professor of geosciences. In 2002, he was elevated from director of the university’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Environment Institute to dean of the school’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
But, he’s not relying on that experience to guide his thinking about Penn State in 2014.
“It’s an institution that moved quickly when I was there, and I’m assuming it’s been moving quickly while I’ve been gone,” Barron said.