UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s only been a few weeks since Eric Barron officially stepped away from his job at Florida State to prepare to become Penn State’s next president. And he’s been busy.
Barron’s been crisscrossing the state, visiting 12 of Penn State’s branch campuses with more stops ahead of his May 12 start, he told a group of student leaders from those campuses Saturday.
“My goal has been to listen and, when I become president, to know the most I possibly can,” Barron said in remarks to the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments, which was at the University Park campus for its final meeting of the academic year.
It was Barron’s first chance to formally speak with Penn State students since his appointment in February to become to the university’s 18th president.
President Rodney Erickson spoke to the group earlier Saturday.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Barron said. “At these campuses, there’s a tremendous sense of pride, a real sense of community. I’ve come to understand the power of the commonwealth campuses.”
Barron will likely have to consider how to deal with shrinking enrollment at those branch campuses when he formally steps into his new role next month.
The number of students among the branch campuses declined in 2013 from 2012, but university officials said the drop was largely for two reasons: fewer students enrolling in associate degree programs and fewer high schoolers taking courses at branch campuses near their homes.
The enrollment at the branch campuses has been in a downward trend since reaching highs of more than 42,000 in the late 2000s.
Penn State officials have said they are paying attention to the demographic changes across Pennsylvania, where the population of high school graduates is declining in all areas except the south-central region.
Barron said some at the branch campuses feel they are “MacGyver schools,” accomplishing much with few resources.
In his 45-minutes talk, which also included a question-and-answer session, Barron described his focus as “student-centered.”
He asked whether the university is accommodating to students of all ages and economic backgrounds and how well it helps undecided students find majors and guides them toward their degrees.
“The worse tuition increase you can have is to go another year,” he said.
Barron compared an education at Penn State to a sports car, echoing comments he made before the university’s board of trustees at the February meeting when he was named the next president.
He asked Saturday “why so many people drive 20-miles per hour? They just haven’t taken advantage of all the richness we have to offer. What are we doing to (encourage) students to put that sports car through its paces?”
Barron said students who are engaged are less likely to get in trouble, and are more likely to have good grades and to be healthy and happy. The university can be proactive in engaging students through internships, one-on-one time with faculty and opportunities for entrepreneurship, service and leadership, he said.
Giving an example of leadership opportunities that can be extended to students, he praised the concept of having a student on the university’s board of trustees, something Penn State students are seeking.
“My entire time at Florida State, the president of the student body was a sitting and voting trustee,” Barron said.
Barron said he wants Penn State to provide a “transformative” experience for all students, so much so that it bonds alumni to the university and encourages them to give back later in life.
“Our campaign, For the Future, had more alumni give back than every other institution in the country,” he said. “I want it to be this way in every campaign, (I want) this experience to be so great and so transformative that you can’t help but give back.”
Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.