UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- New president Eric Barron will have the task of continuing Penn State University on its course into the nation's elite universities while leading it away from the lingering turmoil of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
"How do you make a great institution even better?" Mr. Barron said. "That defines my job."
Mr. Barron, who had been president at Florida State University since 2010, was unanimously elected Penn State's 18th president at Monday's board of trustees meeting.
In his introductory speech, he stressed that the two most important concepts he learned during the 20 years he spent at Penn State until 2006 were the push for excellence and the importance of community. The latter has been an issue since the scandal erupted in November 2011 with the arrest of Sandusky.
Within days, longtime football coach Joe Paterno was fired and president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz left their positions. Mr. Curley, Mr. Spanier and Mr. Schultz are awaiting trial on felony charges related to covering up Sandusky's abuse. Sandusky is now serving a 30- to 60-year prison term on a conviction for sexually assaulting boys, some on campus.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) released a statement Monday urging Mr. Barron to not focus on "football-obsessed alums" and maintain a proper moral compass with regard to Penn State's response to the scandal.
"Many of us are skeptical that the alleged reforms adopted by university officials after the school's child sex abuse scandal have really taken root," the statement read. "We hope Mr. Barron will prove us wrong."
Mr. Barron will be paid a base salary of $800,000 per year as part of a five-year contract that begins on May 12 and ends in June 2019. He will receive a one-time $200,000 transition payment, a $200,000 retention payment at the end of years two through five of his contract and $1 million upon the completion of the five-year term. Outgoing president Rodney Erickson, who took over the position in November 2011, made $600,000 per year. Mr. Barron could start earlier than May 12 as president-elect.
One of Mr. Barron's primary tasks will be dealing with the conflicting feelings that persist at Penn State.
In the ensuing trustee elections, alumni have voted out all the eligible alumni trustees who fired Paterno. Groups such as Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship continue to press for recognition of Paterno, while most Penn State students and select alumni who have recently spoken at trustees meetings promote the need for Penn State to move forward.
Asked to assess the conflict, Mr. Barron chose his words carefully, saying he needed more time and more of a personal experience.
"I have a lot to learn, and I want to take time and learn everything I can," Mr. Barron said. "I truly believe that everybody you talk to who is a part of this university wants to come together and support the university."
He struck a similar note with regards to Paterno.
"In my view, whatever we do we have to make sure that we do it with a high sense of dignity and honor," Mr. Barron said, "and sometimes that takes time."
Anthony Lubrano, a trustee who has called for Penn State to honor Paterno and to re-examine the Freeh report, read a statement during the trustees meeting in which he said he looked forward to working with Mr. Barron and brought up the issue of a divided Penn State community.
Mr. Lubrano referenced Nov. 9, 2011 -- the day Paterno was fired -- as an elephant in the room. He asked Mr. Barron to think about a famous quote from Paterno, to "dare to be great."
"I hope the winds of change are blowing in the form of a renowned climatologist named Eric J. Barron," Mr. Lubrano said. "It's time to bring us all home. We want to return. We want to heal. We just need a leader to show us the way."
Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship praised the university for selecting a president with Penn State ties.
"We very much look forward to meeting with him and sharing our views," said a statement from the group. "After he's done that, we hope that he will immediately take steps to unify the entire Penn State community by correcting the errors made by the outgoing administration."
Trustee Karen Peetz, who was the chair of the Presidential Selection Council, and Nan Crouter, chair of the Presidential Search and Screen Committee and dean of the College of Health and Human Development, declined to specifically discuss the details of the search regarding Mr. Barron.
Last November, the board was prepared to hire David Smith, president of the State University of New York's upstate medical campus, who was implicated in a pay scandal that month. Mr. Barron said it was very recently that he demonstrated and communicated interest in the Penn State presidency.
Mr. Barron's earlier service to Penn State began in 1986, initially to start the new Earth System Science Center. He became a professor of geosciences in 1989 and was named dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences in 2002.
After Penn State, he became a dean at the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. He became director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., in July 2008.
At Florida State, Mr. Barron governed an institution twice named the nation's most efficient university, according to a Florida State news release. The athletic department was successful and profitable, with the football team winning the national title in January. He also helped navigate the university through a sexual assault accusation involving quarterback Jameis Winston, who was not charged with a crime.
"It's incredibly important that an institution follow due process," he said.
At Penn State, Mr. Barron will have to curry favor from a Legislature that has cut the higher education budget in recent years. Many branch campuses are also battling demographic changes. Those circumstances have made it increasingly difficult for Penn State to cater to Pennsylvania's working class as part of its land-grant mission.
Mr. Barron noted Penn State was "simply unbeatable when we're working together for a common purpose." It's now his job to get Penn State to work together and position it for the future.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter@mdent05. Eleanor Chute: email@example.com, 412-263-1955 and Twitter @Eleanor_Chute First Published February 17, 2014 12:34 PM