The setting was informal and the weather late-summer perfect when Eric Barron came to the Hintz Family Alumni Center in September. Joined by his wife, Molly, Barron sat on a tree-shaded bench outside University House, the residence of many of his distant predecessors, to look back on his tenure as Penn State’s 18th president. An atmospheric scientist by training, Barron spent 20 years at University Park as a faculty member and eventually dean of the College of Earth & Mineral Sciences before leaving in 2006 for bigger opportunities. When he came back in 2014, it was to lead an institution still reeling from a seismic scandal.

The job never got easier. Beyond the perennial challenges of leading a massive university, Barron has been tasked with responding to scandal, social unrest, political polarization, and an ongoing pandemic. He’s done so while constantly championing the university’s successes, from record fundraising and research appropriations to the rapid growth of an entrepreneurship initiative that ranks with his signature accomplishments. He has also kept a hand in academia, teaching a class in the Presidential Leadership Academy.

On the day before the first home football game of the season, we spoke for more than an hour about the challenges and achievements of his time in office and the state of the university he’ll leave behind when he steps down next June. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

PENN STATER: In preparing for this interview, I was reminded that you’ve got an unusual perspective on this place: You were here for 20 years, you left to pursue opportunities in administration, and you came back.
ERIC BARRON: I think it was essential. Before we left, Molly and I had this big discussion about what we were going to do, because I like teaching. I liked doing my research. [But] I decided we have to go. Because if this is the track I’m taking, I need to reach for the highest that I can go. That was very hard. We’d been here 20 years. We raised our kids here, this is a place we love. [But] if you’re going to focus on that career, you’ve got to go out in the world.

PS: You were gone for eight years, including four as president at Florida State, your alma mater. And then, with the Sandusky scandal still very much in mind, you end up back at Penn State.
Barron: I knew what I was walking into. [People] told me, “You’re going to have to find a way to mend this community.” The good thing was, I knew what this institution was like. I knew there was this level of, “What can I do more, what can I do better?” that permeated the place. That helps. Now, I didn’t think we would have a fraternity crisis that would be a national [story]. I didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic. But I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

Eric and Molly Barron

PS: There has been a lot written recently asking, essentially, why would anyone want to be a university president? You’re a CEO, you’re a mayor, you’re running a nonprofit. There are so many stakeholders, there’s increasing politicization. What has it been like being on the inside of that?
: I’ve had people tell me, “I wouldn’t take your job for anything.” And you’ve put your finger on it: There are so many constituencies, and they all expect you to listen to them. A student population, a parent population, an alumni population, a faculty population, a board, a legislature, a governor. Probably no other job I can think of has so many different constituencies that expect you to pay attention to them. So that is a challenge, and as this political polarity has increased, it is increasingly stressful to deal with. I always come back to [something] that I even teach in my class. I tell people that I learned to drive in Atlanta. My dad was sitting next to me, [and] he was extraordinarily calm as I nearly sideswiped multiple cars going down the road. He said, “Eric, if you can lift your head up and look down the road, you will find it easier to get to where you want to go.” Well, this is absolutely true. The car went a lot straighter, and it was a lot less threatening.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that this was also sort of guidance for life: that if you lift your head up and decide where this university needs to go, it’s easier to get there. I think I’ve always had this sense of how important strategic thinking is. When I [came back], I said, “We’ve got to focus on economic development.” Well, that program [Invent Penn State] has just blossomed. Thousands of students, minors, scholarship opportunities, a LaunchBox at every campus, and a new building going up [at University Park] to house all the different activities. I think this is the way out of constantly being buffeted by all these different distractions—to keep your eye in the direction that you want to go. But to be truthful, sometimes it’s really hard. This is why I took up painting. Molly said two years ago, “You need something to relax you.” I had taken a class in grad school, because my parents said, “You’re working too hard on your dissertation. Go do something that relaxes you.” So, I thought, I’ll take a painting class. I never touched it for 38 years, and then I picked it up again.

Cliff walk painting

PS: Like riding a bike, huh?
: It is a moment where I lose myself. And I’m normally still thinking about things. But it’s a complete distraction. That, and all of a sudden, I like Marvel comic movies.

PS: Really?
: Well, the good guy and the bad guy are so well defined, and the good guy wins every single time.

But this is part of public higher ed today. We’re in the midst of the politics of the world. People have to stand up for this work.

PS: This is too broad a topic to do justice in this space, but looking at academics and research, the actual work of this university, are there one or two things that you’re proudest of in your time here?
: I always hesitate to say one thing, or even two things, because of the breadth of the level of excellence. Hitting the billion-dollar mark [in research expenditures], that’s heady company. Or the number of different disciplines where we’re in the top 10 in terms of funding. That is a signal of the breadth of the institution. We are an institution in service to society. That’s fundamentally what a land-grant is all about. And, we have more corporate [research] funding than all the other universities in Pennsylvania combined. On the education side, we just had our engineering accreditation, with 16, 17 different fields being accredited, and I’ve never seen [a situation] where every single program had laudatory comments. It’s a statement that these are high-quality programs. Or—and I always love when some news media says it so we don’t have to brag about it—Forbes says we graduated more STEM students than any other university in the country. These are powerful statements about how great this university is. And it crosses a lot of disciplines. Every time I see a musical theater [performance] or I look at one of the art exhibits we have in the Palmer, they’re all just powerful statements. It’s hard not to be proud about a lot of things.

PS: You mentioned the entrepreneurship initiative, which has led to the creation of new companies and hundreds of new jobs. That seems to be a point of pride.
: It is. I came in saying, “We need a way to visualize our intellectual property. We need a way to reward people. We need a path into the marketplace, and we need to be able to have investment. We need a vehicle to do that.” So I’m very proud of where it ended up. I’m proud of the people who worked on it. We have 21 LaunchBoxes, a LaunchBox within 30 miles of 96% of the population of Pennsylvania. Thousands of students going through. Between the students and the faculty that are taking advantage of it, and the people here that took it and ran, we ended up with a gem.

PS: What about the biggest challenges going forward?
: I would say our biggest constraint is that we’re working so hard on access and affordability that we have to balance that against the dollars to innovate. I convinced the board that we should add it as a category of our budget—innovation dollars. We’re a $7.7 billion-a-year operation [including Penn State Health]. That sounds like you can find a lot of money, but the academic portion is $2.7 billion, and the available innovation dollars are $8 to $12 million a year. That’s not a lot. If you start to look at quantum and AI, social justice issues, all these different issues that are very important to society, we now have to pick. We’re very sensitive to cost. We don’t have a state that is particularly supportive. So, this is the balancing act—that push toward even greater excellence and the cost that you’re charging students.

PS: I know access and affordability have been a priority for you. Can you talk a bit more about your efforts on that front, and your hopes for what the future holds?
: There are a couple of things that are fundamental. One is the notion that access and affordability are defined simply by tuition. In fact, you have a whole group of people that can pay for the tuition, and a whole group of people that really struggle to do it, and you’ve treated them all the same way. A lot of people think that’s the way you need to do it, but: Who’s not graduating? It’s someone [who’s] the first in their family [to attend college]. It’s someone who runs out of money, or that student who works too many jobs, doesn’t take a full load, drops classes more frequently, doesn’t do as well because of the jobs, and gives up, or goes five or six years, so they end up with an education where they’ve paid more and gotten less. My philosophy is, get those students through. We have people that aren’t food-secure; that [takes] a different kind of scholarship, one that Molly and I are going to end up supporting before we’re gone. So, I’ve tried—especially with the board and a press and a population that thinks freezing tuition is the answer—to convince people that raising tuition a little bit and feeding some of those dollars into that population that needs it is a more effective strategy. And having scholarships that are not traditional, but solve the problem, is the way to change. I’m proud that we’ve launched the Open Doors Scholarships; we will probably end up with $750 million in new endowments and funding to support those types of scholarships.

Capitol funding visit
From advocating for funding in Harrisburg (above) to promoting the Invent Penn State program (below), Barron spends much of his time championing the university's contributions to the state.

Barron LaunchBox

PS: World Campus has seen massive growth. How do you see that continuing to evolve?
: Think of how many access points you have to Penn State. World Campus, our campus structure, University Park. Multiple entry points. This really is important. What is going to be added, in my opinion, is a World Campus that is also driven by adults in the workforce who want something more, who need to change jobs. We’re going to see the point where our graduates are always part of this university and can come into a portal and take another class. We could not do that without the foundation of World Campus. You see how remarkably successful it is in something like an MBA, but the possibilities are enormous. We’ve learned to deliver online courses throughout all our units. Students are asking for a residential experience with the flexibility to take some of their courses online. The development of World Campus enabled us to do that really well, because our faculty are the ones teaching World Campus classes. And [last year], we would never have pivoted to have 62,000 people online the Monday after spring break if we hadn’t had the foundation of World Campus.

PS: That brings us to the pandemic. As far as things you’ve had to try to manage, does anything come close?
: I do not think I can imagine anything as difficult. It’s an extraordinary challenge, and it never settles down. It is constantly evolving, so you have to evolve with it. Some people say, “You went remote because it saves you money.” And then we go back in person, “Well, you went back in person because it saves you money.” There’s this notion that whatever you’re doing, it’s because you care about the budget. I actually think we’re doing pretty well. The [COVID] numbers [so far] are good. Let’s hope that continues.

PS: We touched briefly on the fallout from the Sandusky scandal. Your approach from the beginning seemed to be, we’re never going to shy away from acknowledging what happened here, we’re going to be a national leader in child protection research, and we’re going to focus on pushing Penn State forward.
: I felt that I had two jobs: One was focused on the future, and that acknowledgment, as you said. But also, making sure people had a level of pride in the institution. So, I found myself talking about all the great things that were going on in the institution. And I also believe, because I was here [before], that I have the opportunity to acknowledge the contributions that Joe Paterno made without going back and discussing what we should do about this and this and this. [Part of] my job was, I’ve got to have the Big Ten or NCAA reverse what they did. It just wasn’t right. And all of these things contribute to a level of healing. But that takes time. I would say that we’ve made a lot of slow progress.

PS: You also mentioned the challenges within the Greek system, and obviously Timothy Piazza’s death. We talked about this a few years ago, and your message was, We can’t let this happen again, we’re going to address it with regulations, enforcement, and research.
: I believe there is an attitude here, which I have tried to foster, that when you have a problem, you don’t just say, “OK, I’m fixing this problem.” You become a leader in fixing the problem. On child maltreatment, post-Sandusky, it was not just the university looking at this in the space of recovery, but to become the national expert. My sense of Greek life was the same: What does it take to become a national leader in solving a problem that every president shares? So we looked at the science, created a whole bunch of new policies, got support from the board, launched the Piazza Center, and trained a lot of other university presidents in this process. We’ve now got 60 to 80 universities participating in our scorecard process. In my mind, this is Penn State. It’s not just dealing with our problem; it’s deciding that if this is a problem, we should step up.

I would say the results are mixed. The grade point average of all the Greek organizations went up. That’s certainly a win. Sexual assault went way down. Hazing, we have a [new state] law, there’s clear guidance on what to do. There was not before. Hopefully that’s having an impact. If you go by the numbers, it’s a better story at Penn State.

PS: What about athletics? It’s been a disruptive period, most recently with new rules on athlete name, image, and likeness (NIL). What’s your sense of the stability of the NCAA model, and how do you see Penn State positioned to compete financially and on the field?
: Athletics is changing rather dramatically, and in some ways not [for the better]. With NIL, this is a matter of fairness. If I have a music student, and they’ve cut a song, they get to profit from it. Why do I stop an athlete from being able to profit on that? My worry is that you’ve got a bunch of people that now are going to take advantage of athletes who are going to look at a small amount of money and sign away their rights. We have to make sure that it happens in a way that protects the university but also protects the student. The dollar amount is completely arbitrary. Equity issues come into play. Everybody’s wrestling with how to do this.

With expansion and revenue, I worry that the rush for dollars will kill off the small sports. Florida State, Alabama, you have 19, 20 sports. We’re at 31. We’re an anomaly. And those students are incredibly talented in their own rights, and we are here to foster talent. We’re not just here to make money off a particular sport. There need to be revenue incentives so that schools keep a breadth of sports. Otherwise, you’re a corporation. The second thing I worry about is that schools spin off their athletic programs so that they can function more like a corporation. They will be branded by a school, because alumni will care about that, and we will get a royalty for our [naming rights]. This is really the death of an amateur model. If we go off on a full-bore financial model, it will become more corporate, and gymnastics, swimming, lacrosse, those things will not be manageable.

Ryan Jones Eric and Molly Barron

PS: You’ve been a vocal proponent of progress on diversity and inclusion. Can you speak to the progress you’ve seen here, and also where we’ve fallen short?
: First of all, I think this is a moral obligation. Second, I know from talking to students that their lives are richer by meeting people from different places, people that aren’t like them. And third, our business model depends on it. Demographics are changing. If we want to be viable in terms of a student population, we need to be inclusive. There is progress you can point to in terms of, say, the diversity of the upper management of this university. Some of the things we’ve done over the last few years have caused a significant jump in the diversity of the undergraduate population. These are good things. What’s slowest is the diversity of the faculty. People would like the administration to solve that without us interfering with the hiring process within departments. The other challenge is that it has become politically loaded over the last few years in the same way vaccinations are politically loaded: “cancel culture,” being “woke.” “Civility” became a loaded word. “Mandate” is a loaded word. Something like critical race theory, which is a teaching process, becomes a loaded word. So it is far more challenging.

The other thing is, we’ve had enough happen, like George Floyd, that should be an incredible catalyst to moving forward. We have a history of watching events spike interest, then have it rapidly decline. How do you keep momentum? And then along comes COVID, [which] keeps putting everything else on the back burner. This really does frustrate me, because the university was in the midst of quite a bit of progress. We’re creating a new center [announced in late September] that focuses on understanding bias and race and social justice issues. That’s what Penn State should do, just like with child maltreatment, just like with the fraternities. We can be a national leader in understanding the dynamics of this issue.

Our policing efforts I think have had a significant impact, [although] it may take a while to see. The student code of conduct changing, having students take charge of it, I think is significant. I think we see progress. The problem is that diversity in the faculty hasn’t changed. No matter what we’ve done, how many initiatives we have announced, it hasn’t changed. I really see that as a failure.

PS: As far as the job, but also just being part of the university community, what do you think you’ll miss most?
: I’m going to miss teaching my class. It’s my favorite thing—the student activity. We have a lot of friends here. I will miss that interaction. Molly claims that I won’t make 45 days retired. I’m at an appropriate age, I think, to retire. I’ll be approaching my 71st birthday. And I feel like I still have lots of energy. We have a lot of things that we enjoy. But I am a little worried that I’m a full-bore kind of person, and I juggle a lot of things. So we’ll see.

All through our lives, Molly has said, “OK, if that’s what you want to do, let’s do it.” And I did say to her, “You know, in Florida, I’m pretty well known, and Pennsylvania, pretty well known. And I’m very involved in the legislature and everything else. I might run for political office.” And she said, “Over my dead body.” It is the very first time that something that I was proposing to do, she said, “No.”

Molly is very involved in being a part of this presidency. If I have something in my office or I’m in a corporate headquarters talking to someone, I’m doing it. But if it’s something else, we do it together. She is extraordinarily intuitive about people. The number of times we have never met someone [before], and we’re having breakfast with them, and she says, “Come stay with us for the football game next time.” She saw something in them, and she’s been infallible. We have met so many people on a much more personal level. At commencements, we started a tradition that at the end, when I’m going down the center aisle, she joins me, and we walk out together. She’s right there in all of this.

PS: As we sit here, you’ve got nine months on the clock. Are you allowing yourself to be reflective just yet?
: I still like looking forward. I haven’t really caught myself stepping back and saying, OK, what did you accomplish? Even for this year, I set myself eight or nine things I wanted to get done before the end of the year. I’m still thinking about them. I am sure that moment is going to come. Maybe it’s the moment I walk out the door. But I’m truly much more thinking about what’s next.