As he took the podium at Penn State Shenango on April 22, Eric Barron impressed upon the assembled students, faculty and staff the basic truth of his philosophy as the University’s new president: “I am here today as ‘chief sponge,’” he said. “To be effective, every leader needs to have a strong sense of the organization that he or she is leading. I am here to learn from you about the things that, in your view, make Penn State a truly excellent university, and to talk about the things we can do together to make a great university even greater.”
In the weeks leading up to his official appointment on May 12, Eric Barron and Penn State’s first lady, Molly Barron, have crisscrossed the Commonwealth, hearing from students, faculty, staff and community leaders at Penn State’s campuses. In every case, Barron said, he has been struck by the commitment to excellence in education, to student success and to the surrounding community.
“I’ve really gotten a sense for what the campuses are proud of, and the list is impressive."
--Penn State President Eric Barron
“I’ve really gotten a sense for what the campuses are proud of, and the list is impressive,” Barron said. “The students, faculty and staff all talk about the sense of family and community they feel; about their pride in the accomplishments of their colleagues and peers; about the strong connections between students and the faculty and staff; and about student success. There also is a very obvious and tight connection between each campus and the surrounding community, which has tremendous value for everyone involved.”
Barron also has held meetings with University and state leaders, including administrators and deans; student leaders; Penn State’s compliance officers, leadership of the Alumni Association and Faculty Senate; and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. At every turn, Barron has shared his “six imperatives,” areas, he says, in which every great university excels: Excellence; student engagement; diversity; student career success and economic development; accessibility; and technology.
“These concepts are not new -- faculty, staff, students, administrators and alumni already are thinking about these imperatives, just as I do, and just as other leaders do. The object is to push the envelope in these areas. All of these are things that great universities do very well.”
In his conversations, Barron has said he sees these imperatives as the starting point in an ongoing exchange with the entire Penn State community, and said he hopes to add to the list with the benefit of the community’s input. At each campus, students, faculty, staff and community leaders have provided him with many examples of their strengths and successes in the area of each imperative.
Karen Wiley Sandler, chancellor at Penn State Abington, said the Barrons’ visit made a very positive impression.
“Dr. Barron’s learning tour of the campuses is a huge testament to his commitment to Penn State as one University,” Sandler said. “It is critical to know that he and Molly wanted to make these trips before he took office. It was clear that he wanted to develop his understanding of who we are as campuses, where we are located and what kinds of constituents we have.”
“At Penn State Abington, the visit was a unifying experience. I think Dr. Barron built everybody’s confidence in the continued stability and strong future of Penn State -- we all felt a sense of momentum surrounding the question of ‘how we make a great university even greater.'"
-- Karen Wiley Sandler, chancellor, Penn State Abington
“At Penn State Abington, the visit was a unifying experience. I think Dr. Barron built everybody’s confidence in the continued stability and strong future of Penn State -- we all felt a sense of momentum surrounding the question of ‘how we make a great university even greater,’” she said. “The way he presented his six imperatives, as a starting point for learning from our community members about what we do well, was crucial, too. It was very clear that he was listening, and his engagement with our students, faculty, staff and community leaders was energizing.”
Barron said the opportunity to hear from so many members of the Penn State community has been informative as he begins to shape his strategic vision for the University.
“If I take a step back from all of these conversations, I have to say I have full confidence that we are operating at a high level of excellence – that’s something that great universities with great faculty do very naturally,” Barron said. “Part of what I’m looking for are the opportunities that we’re missing – making sure that we’re not just focused on success at the individual and program level, but that the work we do also is focused on the overall health of the institution and the success of our students.”
The conversations, too, have presented Barron with a chance to get to know Penn State on a much broader level. He already has spent 20 years of his career at Penn State, including four years as dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 2002-06, but as he assumes the presidency it goes without saying that Barron is approaching the University from an expanded perspective.
“I left Penn State as a dean. Although I think every good dean is conscious about wanting the entire university to be successful, deans also have to focus on their college and their faculty, and on being competitive within their discipline,” Barron said. “The conversations I’ve had have been incredibly useful as I take broader view. As president, you have that same level of interest and that same approach to excellence, but now the entire family is yours.”
Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said Barron’s early outreach to the University community and to state leaders, and his focus on listening and learning about Penn State on a broad scale, will help him enormously as he officially begins his tenure as president.
“In my experience, the most successful presidents begin by studying the culture and the history of the institution that they are now leading, rather than arriving with a set of aspirations that might be linked to something they did at a prior institution,” Broad said. “One of the most valuable things that an incoming president can do is to reach out to all of the constituencies and parts of the organization before they are actually sitting in the presidential chair. The things an incoming president will hear and learn before they take the helm oftentimes turn out to be extraordinarily valuable when they do have to make decisions and choices downstream.”
As he has opened his dialogue with Penn Staters across the Commonwealth, Barron said the response has been positive and strong.
“To me, it is clear that there are so many people who are deeply committed to Penn State. At this point I’ve heard from hundreds of people, offering their help and opening doors. This really has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know this University on a much broader scale," Barron said. "I have been impressed in my travels across the state and I am ready, with the help of our community, to take our University to the next level. ”