Penn State weathered the scandal, president-elect Barron says
February 20, 2014 12:00 AM
Ralph Wilson / Associated Press
Eric J. Barron
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Penn State University's president-elect said Wednesday it wasn't so much what anyone told him officially as a candidate for the post that convinced him the institution had healed enough for him to leave a successful presidency of his own.
Rather, Eric J. Barron said, it was a noticeable shift in public views about a place that managed to hold on to excellence while enacting major overhauls from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal -- all while facing the harshest media spotlight.
"The rest of the world outside Pennsylvania has stopped thinking about Sandusky," said Mr. Barron, now president of Florida State University. "This is showing up in record student applications, in near completion of a [fundraising] campaign that's $2 billion.
"It is showing up in the fact that when I talk to faculty and alumni, it's not what they are talking about," he said. "They're talking about the latest things they have done."
Adding it all up, and knowing the safeguards now in place to prevent another such scandal, "It tells me this is an institution that is leaving a tragedy where it should be -- behind it."
In a 30-minute phone interview, Mr. Barron, a former Penn State dean, touched on topics from student engagement and healing divisions facing the state's flagship public university to what he hopes his experience as a scientist with federal government background will bring to the institution.
And, he discussed working in a state that has one of the nation's strongest open records laws and coming to a university that has remained largely exempt from that law, despite efforts in the Pennsylvania Legislature that have stalled
Mr. Barron's tenure at Florida State ends April 2. He spoke by phone hours after trustees there formally accepted his resignation.
Elected Monday as Penn State's 18th president, Mr. Barron, 62, takes office May 12, but will start earlier so he can spend time consulting with president Rodney Erickson, to whom Mr. Barron reported directly for four years while Mr. Erickson was provost and Mr. Barron was dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
He called it "a major plus" to make the transition helped by a predecessor he already knows. He said Mr. Erickson is among the reasons Penn State so far has weathered both the scandal and the recession.
"Rod came in and gave the institution breathing room," he said. "If you were to go back and consider doing a [presidential] search two years ago, just imagine how difficult it would have been. He [Mr. Erickson] created distance while at the same time helping the university improve."
Along with such challenges as keeping pace with rapidly changing technology and shifts in online learning, Mr. Barron stressed the importance "of engaging students so they take more advantage of the university."
He said conducting one-on-one research with a faculty member "is a ticket to an advanced degree," internships boost job prospects as does community service, which he said also provides something of personal importance.
"You feel really good about it," he said.
Those who involve themselves in such activities beyond the classroom "tend to be happier and they clearly have better grades," he said.
Mr. Barron is coming to a place where some remain upset with the university's reaction to the Sandusky scandal, including the firing of football coach Joe Paterno as the school faced withering criticism for not bringing crimes by Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, to light sooner.
Asked what his message would be to ease those tensions, Mr. Barron replied: "My thought is to do a heck of a lot of listening, so I understand where people are coming from."
He said it's OK to have disagreement, even among school trustees, if those involved "love Penn State and are committed to Penn State."
He said there is even benefit from having differing voices weigh in on university matters.
Mr. Barron, who began his career at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said every revenue stream to a university such as Penn State, including federal research funding, is under stress these days.
"I think I have an understanding of the federal structure," he said.
On the subject of open records law, his comments suggested two ways of thought.
On one hand, he said he now cannot be part of the team that manages athletic conference televisions contracts because, by state law, if he saw the document he would be required to share it if it were requested. "ESPN is not going to tolerate having everyone know what they are negotiating," he said.
On the other hand, "What you put in writing, you have to realize that anybody could read," he said. "It makes you more thoughtful. That's not a bad thing."
He said he is used to an environment where there is transparency about public spending, and in fact, he said records requests to Florida State are more likely to involve documents that would show "who said what to whom" than spending.
But there was no mistaking his views on open versus closed presidential searches. He said it's no mystery why the University of Georgia's confidential process attracted six sitting presidents and the University of Florida's open search drew just one, who ultimately withdrew.
Would he have taken part in an open presidential search at Penn State?
"I would not," he said. "There's just no way I could do it."
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.
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