Penn State President Eric Barron touched on current events Tuesday while addressing the University Faculty Senate.
Barron recalled the jubilant throngs of students who celebrated peacefully Monday night in front of Old Main, around Beaver Stadium and throughout downtown State College after the NCAA eased sanctions against Penn State and made the Nittany Lions once again eligible for a bowl game.
“I view the celebration last night as a narrow escape because we didn’t know how far it might go, and that worries you,” he said.
Then he commented on the NCAA’s decision to return Penn State to postseason play and restore its full allotment of football scholarships, reversing two of the sanctions handed down two years ago for Penn State’s role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
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Monday’s turn of events came after former U.S. senator George Mitchell’s report commended the university’s progress in carrying out administrative reforms and improving how it prevents and responds to sexual assault.
“From my particular viewpoint, what has just occurred, both suggests that this institution has taken this issue very seriously, but also that the focal point is on our students and student-athletes,” Barron said.
The reversal also vindicated the current senior players, who stayed despite the sanctions, he said.
“They knew they were going to struggle, but they were committed to a Penn State education,” Barron said. “This is the way you want it to be.”
In issuing its edict, the NCAA concluded that the current players weren’t “the individuals to punish” and that fewer scholarships denied student-athletes the chance to “get an education at a highly ranked institution,” Barron said.
He said he was allowed this time to listen to his fellow presidents’ full discussion about the sanctions. The result, he said, reflected well on Penn State.
“So we should be very proud, as an institution, that we’ve taken this so seriously and that our focus is on the students,” he said.
During his remarks Tuesday, Barron also outlined a proposed strategy for seeking state appropriations.
Traditionally, he said, Penn State has “gone with our hand out” to state legislators and asked for a certain percentage or a round number for funding. When legislators shake their heads, Penn State raises tuition, goes about its business and annually repeats the process.
“All of us know that over time that lack of support has made a difference, and we have higher tuition than our Big Ten peers,” he said.
The problem, he said, is the usual routine hasn’t worked.
“And so why do it again?” he said. “And my thought is: We need to put something specific on the table.”
Going forward, Penn State should frame its revenue requests in terms of “our role in promoting economic development and student career success,” Barron said.
“Then we’re doing something we know the members of the state legislature and the governor are all keenly interested in,” he said. “We have the capability to have this impact across the commonwealth, which makes a big difference.”
Rather than the percentage or round sum, Penn State could ask for a specific amount to fund additional faculty in areas known to have “a lot of potential to drive economic development” and “have an impact on the workforce.”
To the list Penn State could add research slated for being taken to the marketplace, something the university needs to improve, he said, noting it’s 18th among universities in research expenditures but below 60th place in licensing intellectual property.
“Stanford is famous for that, and we lag considerably behind what our capability is doing,” he said. “So this is an area in which we could grow.”
Barron said the economic-impact strategy proved successful when he led Florida State and the Florida legislature was deep in a budget crunch.
As an experiment at Penn State, he said, it may take a while to succeed, but he’s optimistic from his conversations with Gov. Tom Corbett, his gubernatorial election opponent Tom Wolf and legislators “that they are actually eager to see something different come from the university in terms of a budget request.”
“We always talk about economic impact,” he said. “I’d like us to be an economic driver.”
Barron told faculty members he’s going to present his proposal to the board of trustees for consideration.
One faculty member, while saying the proposal sounded “attractive,” told Barron he’s concerned about “performance-based funding, once you accept the idea that political masters can decide which ideas are valuable and which are not,” and “giving up our independence, our intellectual honesty, for negotiation with political bodies.”
Replied Barron: “You can count on the fact that we’re not going to do that.”
He defended the approach, saying he resisted the Florida governor’s demand to shut down the anthropology department and still received additional revenue in the end.
“So I don’t see this as yielding to anything,” he said, “but just to say ‘This is the direction we want to go. Do you want to support it?’ ”