Eric Barron doesn’t want Penn State to be the No. 1 university in the country — and he thinks that’s a good thing.
That might seem like a strange position for the president of one of the highest-profile universities in the country to take, but Barron explained his thoughts at the board of trustees committee on governance and long-range planning meeting Thursday.
The topic came up as a discussion on strategic planning turned to Penn State’s place in U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings of public colleges. A No. 8 slot in 2013 became a No. 14 berth this year, leading some trustees to wonder how to make the school not just regain ground but shoot for the top spot.
“We would have to be a lot more elitist,” Barron said.
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The committee had just heard from Vice President Madlyn Hanes about how the Commonwealth Campuses open the university’s doors to students of all incomes, of different levels of scholarship, many the first people in their families to attend college.
To be No. 1, Barron said, that would have to change. Penn State would have to become, like some of those above it in the ranking, harsh about acceptance. Only the top 10 percent. Only certain scores. They would have to game the system, restricting the number of fall acceptances, when the snapshots of the pool are taken, and being more generous in the spring.
They would also have to be a little less careful with money. Barron said the university suffers under the U.S News listing because its faculty are efficient. Other schools, he said, have more money spent per instructor. That’s not a competition he is willing to get into when 81 percent of students receive financial aid.
“It can’t be about who spends the most money. I find that offensive. It’s how you spend the money,” he said.
He said that Penn State’s finished product shows more than the annual list. There are the 543 companies that participated in Career Day.
“Every one of them that I talked to said, ‘We want these students,’” he said, adding that Siemens said Penn State students were the cream of the crop.
Provost Nick Jones said he recently received a letter from the Loudoun County, Va., school district. An administrator told him that 16 of their recent hires were Penn State grads and lauded the quality of the education they had received.
“I don’t think that we’re looking to be No. 1 unless the ranking system changes,” Barron said.
Instead, he wants to focus on improving in targeted areas via strategic planning.
Jones said one way to improve is to up the rankings of individual departments by better communicating their accomplishments. Many of those rankings, he said, are subjective.
“If people don’t know what we’re doing, they aren’t going to rank us,” Jones said. “As an institution, we are very modest. ... Compared to our peers, we have just not done as good a job of getting the word out.”