In 1985, the dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, John Dutton, was interviewing candidates to head a research lab called the Earth System Science Center.
Eric Barron, now the president-elect of Penn State, was one of the researchers up for the job, and he ended up getting it.
“I pointed at him and said, ‘That man’s going to make us all a success,’ ” Dutton said Monday. “He’s just a dynamo.”
Dutton was one of Barron’s former colleagues from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences who watched Monday as Barron’s career came full circle with his approval as Penn State’s next president.
The university’s board of trustees voted unanimously to hire him, and he’ll return to work here officially on May 12.
“One day we’ll be able to fully analyze his legacy,” said Dutton, who retired as a dean emeritus in 2001. “If it is successful, it will be a revitalization of the university. It will be a shared sense of moving forward. It will be an emphasis on academic achievement.”
Dutton, who was on the faculty of the meteorology department, went to Florida State last year to give a lecture on managing weather and climate. His hosts were Barron and his wife, Molly.
“I got to see his influence on that institution,” Dutton said. “He says, ‘This great institution …’ in a way that makes everybody a part of it. People say, ‘That’s me he’s talking about.’ ”
Barron started at Penn State in 1986 and rose through the ranks until he took over for Dutton as the dean in 2002. As a dean, he employed a student-centered focus on education.
For instance, Barron said Monday, he established a student center for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences on the ground floor of the Deike Building as a place for undergraduates to go for advising, tutoring or to feel more at home. He positioned it across the hallway from the classrooms where freshmen had their first-year seminars.
He figured that placing students near the environment, with advisers, tutors and other student resources, would build a sense of community. And that translated into success and a happy student body.
“We had a predictor with what Eric showed with Earth and Mineral Sciences here, that he operated a college that was student-centered and focused on activating the kids,” Dutton said. “I would predict that’s what’s going to happen here. He’ll get the kids to take full advantage of the university.”
Barron left Penn State in 2006 to create a school of geosciences at the University of Texas in Austin. He had more than $230 million to work with, and as much as it pained him to leave Penn State, he said at the time, he couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
Bill Easterling, a geography professor and director of the Penn State Institutes for Earth and the Environment, succeeded Barron as dean in 2007. Easterling called his predecessor a “visionary.”
“He has this amazing ability to bring consensus to very difficult topics, whether they involve science or policy,” Easterling said. “He’s very skilled at bringing people together around the table.”
Easterling said he’s excited to have a leader of Barron’s caliber.
“I think I speak for all of the deans that we are thrilled to have someone of his caliber to lead us,” Easterling said. “He’ll help us move the university looking forward, not backward.”
Geosciences professor Susan Brantley worked with Barron, and it was Brantley who succeeded him as the director of the Earth System Science Center, which is now the college’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.
She said Barron has “big ideas, big plans, and the initiative to make institutions move and grow.”
“His presidency will be an exciting new venture for Penn State,” Brantley said. “His desire to come back here shows that he knows from (firsthand) experience that Penn State is one of the best universities in the country to work in.
“His dynamic leadership matches our dynamic educational and research environment.”
Penn State President Rodney Erickson, who has known Barron for 28 years because of their academic appointments in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, described his colleague as someone who is student-centered, a problem-solver, and someone who can make the most of what he has.
“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.
CDT executive editor Chip Minemyer contributed to this report.