Barron introduces six major topics to spark discussion across University

May 14, 2014

Well before his first official day in office at Penn State, President Eric Barron has been busy on a learning tour that has taken him to all corners of the Commonwealth. He has met with students, faculty, staff and community leaders on Penn State’s campuses; with students and administrative and academic leadership at University Park; and with state leaders. At every turn, Barron has sought information on six major topics, areas, he says, that are driven either by national discussions on higher education or by a wealth of data about students and student success. These are areas in which every great university strives to excel: Excellence; student engagement; demographics and diversity; student career success and economic development; accessibility; and technology. However, their importance to the future of higher education elevates them to the level of imperatives.

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.

As a University, we are the keepers, creators and transmitters of knowledge, and we must excel in each across a broad spectrum of fields. My view is that excellence is a university’s best defense when times are tough. Even in tough times we think twice about giving up high quality programs. Excellence also is a great offense when times are good. During a period of opportunity, excellence allows a university to build on successful programs and efforts. High quality, of our faculty and our programs, is an imperative.

Student engagement
I like to share an analogy that I heard at a convocation ceremony, and apply it to Penn State: "When students decided to come to Penn State and pay their tuition, they purchased a sports car, but too many of them will only drive it 20 miles per hour." In other words, many students simply go to class and leave, and don't take full advantage of the rich opportunities that a college campus offers. There are plenty of data to show that students who are engaged in worthwhile activities (one-on-one research or creative activity with faculty, leadership, internships, international experiences, service, or even a part-time job), even for just 10 hours a week, have a much-improved college experience.

Engaged students have to manage their time and have fewer opportunities to engage in unhealthy behavior; they are happier because their peers and friends also are involved in worthwhile activities; and they receive markedly better grades, all while building a strong résumé that will help them succeed in their careers. After they graduate, engaged students also tend to become engaged alumni.  With such positive outcomes, how can we better promote student engagement?

Diversity and demographics

I see this imperative from three perspectives.

1) This is a moral imperative: It is our obligation as a public institution of higher education to teach the people in our communities, in our state, in the nation, and increasingly at Penn State, students from around the world.

2) This is an educational imperative: A diverse campus climate leads to a richer learning environment. Diversity is key to the education of all students, broadening their exposure to people from very different perspectives, walks of life, economic and racial backgrounds, international perspectives, adult and college-age learners alike.

3) This is a business imperative: From a purely demographic standpoint, this country is changing. If you look at the projection of what the traditional student-age population will be like 20 years from now, this is going to be a very different world. If we are not welcoming and inclusive, and if we don’t mirror the state and the nation and the world, we will be at a tremendous disadvantage.

Importantly, at many universities, diversity is an assigned responsibility when in fact we won’t be successful unless it is everybody’s job.

Student career success and economic development
Coming out of the recession it has become popular in some circles to say there is only one real way to evaluate whether universities are successful: do graduates find employment in their fields, and when they do, what is their salary?

Ultimately, students are consumers. They are paying for an education and have a right to choose their course of study. Many students choose their field because they are passionate about that field – they choose their careers not just to make a large amount of money, but for a variety of different reasons. There are many other issues, including the overall value of a great education and whether we can predict the job market four and five years into the future for every major.  At the same time, student career success is a national conversation that can’t be ignored.

Instead of attempting to tell a student what to study -- they should be free to pursue what interests them, what drives them. However, I think they should go into those decisions with "eyes wide open." They should be advised at the outset about current outcomes – tying a degree to various job titles, current salaries, current unemployment rates, and specifically what happens to Penn State graduates. We can deliberately focus on skills that employers need and suggest are inadequate, like critical thinking skills and communication skills.  We can also ensure that we have robust career services to give our students an edge in their job search.

I also am keenly interested in the degree to which public institutions of higher education drive economic development. Few believe that the major research universities are doing a good job of bringing intellectual property to the marketplace.  If we can better address this issue, we will significantly improve the standing of institutions like Penn State.  And, if we’re really good at teaching at the cutting edge and driving economic development through research, innovation and education, then we’re making ready jobs for our own students. It becomes an imperative that Penn State consciously and deliberately seeks ways to increase the value of our intellectual capabilities to serve the state, the nation and the world.

It’s impossible to ignore the national discussion on the accessibility of a higher education. Student debt and the cost of education are increasing in response to a variety of issues, including the fact that, in nearly every state, funding of public universities has declined substantially.  Does this shift mean that our doors are no longer open to all of the bright hard-working students who should have access? There are good signs – the  percentage of need-based students at Penn State is still rising and we just completed a capital campaign in which student scholarships were the highest priority.  There is abundant evidence that the value proposition at Penn State is still strong.

But, we have to be extremely careful that we not put every lost dollar on the backs of our students.  We need to do everything we can to be efficient and effective. However, we also need to be absolutely sure that our efforts to increase efficiency not come at the expense of the quality that enables our students to have successful careers.

Technology will continue to play a crucial and growing role in the work we do, and we need to be strategic in its implementation. Technology presents challenges, particularly because it is constantly evolving, it is expensive, and, if anything, the range of skills and capabilities of our students is growing.  The role of technology in content delivery also has great potential.  Certainly, online learning is an effective method of delivering quality instruction to those who cannot attend a course in person. Online education also creates lifelong learners – it presents excellent opportunities for individuals to grow throughout their careers and lifetimes, as their learning needs change.  Hybrid and blended courses enable faculty to be even more creative in content delivery.

I also believe that there will always be a place in American higher education for traditional, brick-and-mortar institutions. They offer a rich student experience and unique opportunities for personal growth. The dynamic environment of a University campus is a place where a person can come of age and find opportunities for engagement and education that provide the most transformative learning experience.  How we proceed to best take advantage of technology in each learning environment becomes an imperative for higher education.  

  • Penn State President Eric Barron

    Penn State President Eric Barron, pictured here during a discussion at Penn State Mont Alto on April 18. During his visits to Penn State's campuses ahead of his first day on May 12, Barron gathered ideas from students, faculty, staff and community leaders in six broad... Read more ›

    IMAGE: Debra Collins
  • Penn State President Eric Barron standing at a podium

    Penn State President Eric Barron spoke to members of Penn State Abington's advisory board during his visit to the campus on April 30. In the weeks leading up to his first day in office on May 12, Barron visited Penn State's campuses on a learning tour.

    IMAGE: Regina Broscius
  • Penn State President Eric Barron talks to a group of students

    Penn State President Eric Barron greeted a group of students during his April 23 visit to Penn State Behrend. Barron visited Penn State's campuses in the weeks leading up to his official May 12 start date, where he engaged students, faculty, staff and community leaders in discussions about each campus' strengths.

    IMAGE: John Fontecchio
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Last Updated May 23, 2014