Eric Barron has wasted no time preparing to become the 18th president of Penn State.
Since stepping down from Florida State on April 2, he’s toured commonwealth campuses (21 in 15 days), met with deans and vice presidents and talked about the transition with former Penn State president Rodney Erickson.
Everywhere he has gone, Barron has listened, absorbing advice like a sponge.
“It’s day four,” he said. “Wise people don’t have all their opinions formed on day four.”
But Barron has clear priorities for the university. On Thursday, he shared some of those, as well as thoughts from his first week on the job, during an exclusive interview with the Centre Daily Times.
“I come into this job realizing just how powerful and great this institution is,” Barron said. “My job is to take a great institution and make it even greater. And sometimes a fresh set of eyes and somebody who likes to listen and is paying attention can see those spaces where you have the opportunity to move forward.”
So far, he’s identified six areas he wants to include in strategic planning for the university moving forward.
Here are a few:
Barron has described his approach as student-centered, and Thursday he said he wants an education at Penn State to be transformational.
“I want you to come, I want you to stay, I want you to graduate and I want you to go have a successful career,” he said. “That sounds awfully basic, but a lot of colleges lose people along the way.”
Barron said students who participate in extracurricular activities for 10 to 20 hours a week are less likely to get in trouble, and are more likely to be healthy and happy, to earn better grades, have better resumes and get better jobs.
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.
He’s compared students coming to Penn State and not taking advantage of all the university culture has to offer to driving slowly in a sports car.
“If this is the path, then this notion of student-centered is how do I get more students to drive the sports car more than 20 mph,” Barron said.
Barron said universities have traditionally felt the obligation to provide a quality education to their students and to publish research, but haven’t necessarily felt the same way about how they promote economic development.
”This becomes part of a national discussion; are you producing students who can get jobs,” he said. “I think we should actually be thinking about our ability to create jobs and tie that to the student experience in order to make it more effective.”
Barron called the university an $850 million-a-year research machine and asked how that could spur economic development.
“How does that intellectual property make it into the marketplace?” he said. “How does it promote local economic development, state economic development, development around the different commonwealth campuses?”
Barron said online courses create flexibility — allowing students who might not otherwise have access to Penn State’s campuses to participate in classes — and enable teachers to use new and innovative methods and encourage life-long learning.
“To take that online course and understand its quality, and what it means, and not be afraid when you are 30 or 40 years old to take the next one, that might be one of the most valuable things for online education,” he said.
But for Barron, online education opportunities won’t replace brick and mortar campuses and the experience of leaving home, arriving at a university and becoming engaged in various activities as a student.
“This is part of a coming of age,” he said. “We are delivering a transformative experience on campus.”
Diversity and demographics
Providing accessibility to a diverse group of students is “incredibly important,” Barron said.
“The population has changed and the population in the state is changing,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to educate students. We need a diverse environment”
University leaders, Barron said, should ask themselves if they “are hitting that boundary where bright, hardworking students don’t have access because of cost and because (of) a whole combination of factors”
Barron sees those topics and some others as “critical issues for debate and exploration.” He hopes others at the university will weigh in on whether different topics belong on the list, or whether some of his ideas shouldn’t be the focus moving forward.
“If we do that then we know where we are going, and then my job becomes ... sell (the goals) to the state, sell this to the donors, sell this to the corporate foundations so we get from where we are to those places,” he said.
Barron said great institutions are doing that anyway.
“What we are really trying to do as leaders is get there quicker. Because it’s the natural way in which the whole system ... is evolving. So that becomes my first job — to get that strategic thinking in place.”