UNIVERSITY PARK Penn State President-elect Eric Barron is no stranger to controversy surrounding a premier college football program.
During his time as Florida State president, Barron steered it through a media storm over allegations that quarterback Jameis Winston sexually assaulted a young woman. Prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against Winston in the case, but only after they spent months investigating and the case spent several weeks in the national media spotlight.
At an introductory press conference Monday, minutes after the Penn State board of trustees unanimously named him the university’s next president, Barron was again fielding questions about Winston, and about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
“It’s incredibly important that an institution follow due process, that we let the police do their jobs and the district attorney to do their jobs and, if it gets to that point, to have the courts do their job,” Barron said answering a question about the Winston case.
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“And for the university to respect that, because if you sit there and examine what occurred with Jameis Winston, here are many alumni that are looking and saying, ‘This man became a Heisman candidate and we moved to No. 2 in the polls and that’s why this is happening,’ ” Barron said. “And so there is this sense that you must support this quarterback, because look at this impact, and we’re so sure of what’s right or wrong in this particular case.”
Penn State trustee Paul Silvis was on the search committee, which, he said, asked Barron tough questions regarding the Winston case.
“We grilled him very heavily on that and vetted him on that,” Silvis, the board vice chairman, said. “We talked with a lot of people who were around him. We were satisfied that if something like that ever happened here, that he would handle it in a professional manner and give it the scrutiny he gave what happened there.”
Penn State trustee Anthony Lubrano, who continues to be critical of the way the board and administrators handed the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, said Monday he appreciates what he has heard from Barron.
“I like what he said in respect to the Winston incident, this concept of due process,” Lubrano said. “I’m not sure we necessarily honored that approach to this whole thing, which is why people are still upset. You can’t pave over the past and expect it’s just going to go away.”
Lubrano evoked the name of Joe Paterno at the meeting to hire Barron on Monday, calling the late head football coach, who was fired by the board in the days after the Sandusky scandal broke, the “elephant in the room.”
When asked about what role Paterno’s legacy should have moving forward, Barron shied away at his introductory press conference.
“So my feeling is, the wisest answer is to tell you to give me time,” he said. “I watched all of his great strengths as a faculty member and as a dean, and as someone who loves this institution, but in my view whatever we do we have to make sure that we do it with a high sense of dignity and honor. And sometimes that takes time.”
Barron also said he would need time to say what he could do to bridge a perceived divide in the Penn State community.
“I have a lot to learn,” he said. “I want to make sure that I take the time to learn everything that I can. I think it’s a mistake to think that just because I was here eight years ago ... that I know everything and can make decisions and comments.
“But I will say this,” he continued. “I truly believe
that everybody you talk to that is part of this university wants to come together to support a truly great university, and so my feeling is that with the opportunity to talk about the greatness of this university, all the wonderful things that it’s doing, all the wonderful things that it can do and will do, that this is one community that is so dedicated to this university that I believe we will all come together because we love this institution so much.”
Lubrano said he is hopeful that Barron will take steps to unite the Penn State community.
“I think what you’ll see him do is reach out to the various communities within the Penn State community,” Lubrano said. “Ultimately, he’ll come up with a thoughtful solution. Is it going to happen overnight? No. But I at least feel good about the fact that he appears to be his own man. And that’s important.”
Barron, for his part, said watching the Sandusky scandal play out from afar was “painful and saddening.”
“But what I see is an institution that has really taken control of compliance and is no doubt now a model university that I think a lot of other universities are going to look at and say, ‘This is the way we should be operating to make sure that we’re doing all the things the right way,’ ” he said. “This is truly the Penn State way. If we find something that we’re not doing well, we turn around and make sure we are doing it well.”