UNIVERSITY PARK — As he was introduced as Penn State’s next president, Eric Barron compared the university to a “blue and white Corvette,” but questioned why students don’t drive it at full speed.
“If we can engage students in and outside of the classroom, then I’m absolutely convinced that they’ll be happier, they’ll make better choices in life, they’ll have stronger resumes, and they’ll get better jobs,” Barron told Penn State trustees, former colleagues and friends Monday.
“My bet is that Penn State can do this better than any other institution with incredibly positive outcomes for our students.”
Barron, a longtime faculty member, will return to Penn State to be the university’s 18th president, and he delivered the student-centric, optimistic remarks in his acceptance speech after the board of trustees unanimously approved his appointment Monday afternoon. He will succeed Rodney Erickson, who took over at the start of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and will retire this summer.
Barron, 62, has been the president of Florida State since February 2010 and was on the faculty at Penn State for 20 years, most recently serving as the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Barron’s homecoming will start May 12, two days after spring graduation ceremonies, and his five-year contract runs through June 30, 2019.
He’ll be paid a base salary of $800,000 — double what he earns at Florida State — with annual incentives of $200,000 and a $1 million payment at the end of the contract. All told, his contract is worth $6 million.
Barron and his wife, Molly, will live in the Schreyer House off Park Avenue.
Erickson, who has known Barron for 28 years from their time working in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, offered to work with his successor to ensure a smooth transition.
“Eric has always been an enthusiastic and supportive voice for Penn State, and he has my unqualified support as he takes on this crucial role at this historic moment,” Erickson said. “I offer him my full assistance during the transition.”
Barron said his first priority will be to learn as much as he can about Penn State so he can be the best leader possible. He said he knows the university has evolved since 2006, when he left for a job at the University of Texas in Austin.
As Penn State’s president, Barron will oversee a world-class research institution with more than 98,000 students, a $4.4 billion budget and one of the largest alumni communities in the country.
He’ll take over at a time when state funding has been flat, and the university has ranked as one of the most expensive public institutions in the country.
And, he’ll be the public face of a university whose alumni base is still fractured over the Sandusky scandal and the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
“This is one community that is so dedicated to this university that I believe we will all come together because we love the institution so much,” Barron said later, during a news conference.
Penn State officials have said three senior-level positions would not be filled until the new president’s hiring: athletic director, vice president for marketing, and the dual position of vice president for research and dean of the graduate school.
Barron’s appointment ends a 15-month search process that included a setback in late October, when the presumptive pick, David Smith, the president of a New York medical university, was found to have been padding his pay and took himself out of the running. Penn State reset the search and, as it turns out, the search committee seems to have valued someone who knows the turf very well.
It’s not clear who initiated contact — Barron or the Penn State search committee.
Barron described his interest in the job as “very recent” and said he did not pursue the position a year ago, while the search was still in the exploratory phase. Barron said he was pursuing initiatives at Florida State, such as having Florida lawmakers designate it a “pre-eminent university” that came with an increase in state funding.
Trustee Karen Peetz, who headed the search committee, said the process changed after about a year, though she did not get into specifics about what triggered the change.
“One of the things that we learned from, really, almost a year at the process, was that going after candidates who we were particularly focused on and interested in might yield a better outcome,” Peetz said. “And that put Eric Barron straight in our scope.”
At Florida State, Barron won acclaim as he worked to raise the school’s academic reputation with the “pre-eminent” designation. He also oversaw a $1 billion fundraising campaign and led what was ranked as the most efficiently run university in the country for two years.
Trustees, as they prepared to vote on the hire, praised Barron’s record. Joel Myers and Keith Eckel called him an excellent choice.
Marianne Alexander said Barron embodies Penn State’s values as “a student-centered university with a land grant mission.”
“Clearly, he’s committed to the affordability and accessibility of a college education and deeply appreciates the importance of fully engaging students both in and out of the classroom,” Alexander said.
Barron’s name as Penn State’s presidential pick circulated late last week, and Barron confirmed his plans to leave Florida State in an interview with a Tallahassee newspaper over the weekend.
As he was escorted into The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel through a back door Monday morning, he signaled a thumbs-up and said returning to Penn State was “wonderful.”
Barron came to Penn State in 1986 and, over the years, he built a reputation as an expert in climatology. He was given the title of distinguished professor for his work, and he was the director of what was previously called the Earth System Science Center.
In 2002, he became the dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and saw its enrollment and research budget increase during his tenure. He left in 2006 to establish a school of geosciences at the University of Texas in Austin, an opportunity he said at the time he could not pass up.
Barron was at Texas from 2006 to 2008, and he went on to be director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., from 2008 to 2010.
Barron also served five years on the State College Area school board. He stepped down in 2002, when he became dean.
Barron’s departure, which was reported Friday, came as a shock to those in Tallahassee. The chairman of Florida State’s governing board said Barron had declined interviews with other major universities recently.
“While this is a great loss for the state of Florida and Florida State University, this is also a tremendous opportunity for Eric,” said the chairman, Allan Bense. “He leaves this university in very good shape, and we certainly wish him well as he moves on to this new challenge.”