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?
BARRON: 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?
BARRON: 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?
BARRON: 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.