Eric Barron’s Penn State move surprises Florida State

Tallahassee DemocratFebruary 16, 2014 

Florida State University President Eric J. Barron delivers his fourth State of the University Address at Ruby Diamond concert hall, in Tallahassee, Fla., November 7, 2013.

MIKE EWEN — Tallahassee Democrat photo


    What: Penn State board of trustees meeting to appoint Eric Barron as president

    When: noon Monday

    Where: Dean’s Hall, The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel

Eric Barron isn’t sure when his last day at Florida State University will be.

Barron, Florida State’s president since 2010, is expected to be named Penn State’s next president when its board of trustees meets Monday.

As for Barron’s departure from Florida State, that will be up to that university’s trustees, Barron said Saturday in an interview with the Tallahassee (Fla). Democrat.

“Nobody cares for a lame duck and how they might perform,” he said. “My view is, I am committed to do whatever it takes so it works however Florida State needs to have it work. My board (Florida State) needs to be in the driver’s seat.”

News of Barron’s pending exit came without warning Friday afternoon. It was first reported on a Penn State student blog and spread quickly from Pennsylvania to Tallahassee, where Florida State’s leadership team was taken by surprise. David Coburn, Barron’s chief of staff, first learned about his boss’s departure Friday afternoon.

Barron, 62, has enjoyed widespread respect and admiration at Florida State, in the Tallahassee community and even in Florida’s Capitol. Under his leadership, Florida State has been ranked the most efficient university in the country the past two years and it has steadily moved up in the national rankings.

“People would be surprised at how much pain is associated with leaving Florida State,” Barron said. “It is awfully hard.”

Barron has set Florida State on a path to be listed among the top 25 public universities in the nation. He also has initiated the university’s first $1 billion capital campaign, which is just beyond the midpoint. But he said he doesn’t believe he has unfinished business at Florida State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1973.

“If you’re doing a good job, there’s no such thing as a good time, there’s no finish line,” he said. “There’s always the next thing you want to accomplish. Any president who’s thinking about a finish line is thinking about their retirement and not doing their job.”

State College and Penn State are familiar turf for Barron and his wife, Molly. Barron was on the faculty at Penn State for 20 years, from 1986 to 2006, and State College is where they raised their two children. Barron rose at Penn State from professor to dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

At Penn State, he will be overseeing a university with more than 95,000 students spread over multiple campuses (Florida State has 41,000 students) with an annual $4.1 billion budget, almost four times that of Florida State’s. Penn State, still recovering from the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and its aftermath, is consistently ranked among the top 10 public universities in the United States. Finally, Penn State pays its presidents significantly more than does Florida State; the base salary for Rodney Erickson is $600,000, almost $200,000 more than Barron’s $405,200 salary — yet a fraction of what either school’s football coach earns.

“I’m not doing it for the money, but I have to admit the money is nice,” Barron said. “Here’s the next challenge and it’s a very different model. I think it’s a real opportunity to continue the same path I’ve always taken and that’s to make the institution I work at better.”

As Florida State has risen in national prominence under Barron’s leadership, he has heard from more than one head hunter looking to fill a rival institution’s top position. Penn State was different.

“It got to be a little more personal,” Barron said, “so I took a look.”

Joe Gruters, a Sarasota, Fla., accountant and Florida State trustee, told The Associated Press that last month he had asked Barron if he had been contacted by Penn State. Gruters said Barron told him that he had, but then said he was not interested in the job.

Gruters said Florida State’s trustees were about to begin work on a new contract for Barron that would have given him a raise.

“I think the reason Penn State would want him is the guy’s a superstar,” Gruters said. “It would be a huge loss for Florida State if he were to take the job.”

Barron’s unexpected news was also a little personal for Tom Jennings, Florida State’s vice president for university advancement, and not just because his daughter is a sophomore at Penn State. Barron, charged with leading a $1 billion fund drive when he was named Florida State’s 14th president in December 2009, created Jennings’ position with that mission in mind and lured Jennings away from the University of Virginia.

No one other than Molly Barron has spent more time with Florida State’s president during the past three years. They have traveled the country together to meet alumni and talk about making gifts to the university. Jennings said Saturday he did not learn about Barron going to Penn State until Friday afternoon, and as of noon Saturday he had not spoken to Barron.

“That’s how these things are supposed to work,” Jennings said. “Eric has provided great leadership at Florida State. He’s laid the groundwork for so many things, from preeminence to rising in the national rankings to fundraising. He has been a great president for Florida State.”

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