President-Elect Eric Barron: ‘I Have a Lot to Learn’

February 17, 2014 at 8:02 pm 2 comments

President-elect Eric Barron and his wife, Molly, are introduced at Monday's special Board of Trustees meeting.

President-elect Eric Barron and his wife, Molly, are introduced at Monday’s special Board of Trustees meeting.

Eric Barron spent 20 years at Penn State, a larger chunk of his professional career than he’s spent anywhere else, by a lot. He called Penn State’s current president, Rod Erickson, formerly his boss in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, “much more than that—he was my mentor.” He said at every job he’s held since leaving Penn State, including his current position as Florida State president, he has taken two lessons he learned here, the “push for excellence and the power of community.”

“In so many ways,” Barron said Monday afternoon, just after being appointed Penn State’s 18th president, “I never left Penn State.”

Which doesn’t mean, Barron stressed, that he knows everything there is to know about this place. He left University Park in 2006 (click here to learn about what he did during the past eight years), and he knows the campus and the entire Penn State system have changed a lot since then.

“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 and for a while, or that because I’m paying attention to what’s going on in the world, that I know everything and can make decisions.”

Barron gave that answer in responding to a question about how he would bridge the divide in Penn State’s community that is one of the lasting effects of the Sandusky scandal, but his need to learn was a theme he sounded throughout his brief media tour Monday afternoon, even when asked about his goals for Penn State.

“The first thing I’d like to do,” he said, “is tap each dean on the shoulder and say, ‘I’d like to spend half a day with you. Show me your physical plant. Tell me those things you brag about. Those things you struggle with.’ Because I do think it’s a mistake to sit here and say, ‘I’ve been a university president for four years and directed a national lab, I know what to do.’ It doesn’t usually work that way.

“The way it works well is when you have a full sense of the strengths of an institution and its weaknesses. You look at how you leverage those strengths and go to the next level and do it in a way that the entire community is eager to do those things with you. And so I need to discover those. Mine is not, ‘We’re going to do this, this, and this.’ Mine is working hard to understand this institution as best I can so I can be a truly good leader.”

Barron’s official start date is May 12, two days after spring commencement, although he may arrive on campus earlier to begin transitioning, university officials said. Erickson is scheduled to retire June 30, giving Barron at least six weeks to hang out with some deans before he takes over.

Barron’s contract, which ends June 30, 2019, is worth $6 million over five years. That includes an $800,000 base annual salary, a $200,000 transition payment after he starts, a $200,000 retention payment at the end of years two through five, and a $1 million completion payment at the end of year five. The vice chair of the Board of Trustees’ compensation committee, Kathleen Casey ’88, said its compensation consultant found the package to be “reasonable based upon their assessment of the peer market compensation levels.”

Based on a 2013 analysis of executive compensation by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Barron’s total compensation of $1 million annually would rank him No. 5 overall (former president Graham Spanier, who received deferred compensation in 2012, was ranked No. 1 at $2.9 million). At Florida State, according to the Chronicle, Barron’s total 2012 compensation was $588,146, which ranked him No. 52 among public university presidents.

The trustees voted unanimously—by voice vote, not roll call—to approve Barron’s selection, which brought to an end the 13-month search for a new president. The original timetable called for a candidate to be voted upon in late 2013, giving the new president six months or so to transition. But the board’s reported first candidate, David R. Smith, was found to have padded his compensation at the State University of New York’s Upstate Medical School, causing the board to cancel a November special meeting to vote on the president less than 24 hours after announcing it.

Barron and Karen Peetz, chair of the Trustee Presidential Selection Council, answer questions at Monday's news conference.

Barron and Karen Peetz, chair of the Trustee Presidential Selection Council, answer questions at Monday’s news conference.

Penn State officials declined to comment on the search process, saying they wanted to focus on the successful end of the search. Karen Bretherick Peetz ’77, who chaired the Trustee Presidential Selection Council, did say that the second time around, the process changed. She they learned “that going after candidates who we were particularly focused on and interested in might yield a better outcome. And that put Eric Barron straight in our scope.”

Board chair Keith Masser ’73 declined to say when Barron had risen to the forefront or to address reports that Penn State had engaged a new executive search firm after working with Isaacson Miller for the first year or so. He cited a confidentiality agreement.

“We had a lot of thinking to do, twists and turns, which I think none of us at this point want to go into,” said Ann Crouter, dean of the College of Health and Human Development and chair of the University Presidential Search and Screen Committee, which did the initial screening of candidates. “I think a search has to be judged by the outcome of the search, and if you could have looked around the faces of the search and screen committee after Dr. Barron left the room after our interview with him, just the sense of optimism and kind of ‘aha’ on everybody’s face—we knew we were there.”

Barron said he didn’t “indicate any interest” in the Penn State job when the search began; at the time, he said, he was lobbying for a law to designate Florida State as a “pre-eminent” university entitled to additional state funding. “I had more to do,” he said.

His to-do list hasn’t gotten any shorter. At Penn State, Barron will have a long list of duties, including helping the university to recover from the Sandusky scandal, working with a Board of Trustees that is embarking on additional governance reform, and dealing with the challenges that are affecting all of higher education, including state funding and tuition costs.

“I really don’t see barriers to continuing to advance this institution,” Barron said. “It’s advancing in a remarkable set of ways. The amount of research money that’s coming in, the record number of students applying to this institution, advancing in the national rankings, which is the No. 1 thing that a good student looks at to decide to pick a university. … I see this tremendous amount of energy and commitment, and if you talk to the faculty, they’re talking to you about the next great thing that they’re doing. And so this is what I see that is Penn State.”

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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The Penn Stater Daily — Feb. 17, 2014 Eric Barron: In His Own Words

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. R Thomas Berner  |  February 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    If I understand Karen Peetz correctly, the second time around the search folks went after candidates instead of waiting for candidates to come to them. Seems to me the first head hunter failed. This wasn’t a search for an assistant professor.

  • 2. New Issue: On the Way | The Penn Stater Magazine  |  February 26, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    […] Other good stuff in the March/April issue: The details on a new, lifesaving “kidney swap” program at Penn State Hershey, a short feature on football coach James Franklin, and an introduction to Penn State’s new president, Eric Barron. […]

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