Q&A: President Eric Barron on his first year, Penn State's future

On May 12, 2015, Penn State President Eric Barron marks one year in office. Penn State News sat down with him recently to review his first year and to talk about what's next for the University.

Q: Reflecting on your first year, what was your first job as president?

A: Although I spent 20 years of my career at Penn State, it’s a different institution than the one I left in 2006. Since I arrived last May, I have worked to learn as much as possible about our people and programs. I have traveled to all of the Commonwealth Campuses and talked to thousands of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends…both formally and informally. I felt my first job was to listen, so I could focus on my main job -- making a great university even greater. That’s the reason why I came back to Penn State and it’s the reason I look forward to coming to work every day.

Q: What did you learn from your interactions over the first year?

A: Overall, the interactions were very positive and uplifting. And I found that people were hungry for all of the good news about Penn State. We have incredibly accomplished faculty members and students, who are winning some of the top honors in the world; for example the Marshall Scholarship, Gates-Cambridge Scholarship, Fulbright Awards and more. We have great stories to tell.

I was also pleased that external evaluators – Moody’s Investor Services and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education — signaled excellence in their recent reports. Moody’s gave Penn State an Aa2 rating, citing “significantly strengthened governance and management practices”; liquidity, strong operations and cash flow; fundraising; and strong national student demand for a leading research university.

The Middle States team determined that Penn State meets all 10 requirements, plus noted 14 institutional strengths worthy of commendation (living land-grant mission; outstanding quality of faculty and programs, improved governance, financial security, and leadership in ethics and compliance.)

These are powerful messages on how Penn State is performing.

Q: What are the things that most surprised you?

A: This university has been through a great deal of turmoil in recent years, but as evidenced by the external evaluators and other signs of excellence, Penn State continues to excel. Last year, we set a record for applications, and this year we have already beaten it. Student selectivity and quality are also increasing. This year, more than 1,500 employers came to campus to recruit our students, who are sought after by leading companies. This is the fourth year of research expenditures of more than $800 million. Our student-athletes are achieving success on the field and in the classroom, and the Nittany Lions finished No. 2 in the final Learfield Cup winter ranking — the highest ranking post winter sports. Plus, a Penn State education is in the top 1 percent in the world.

That is not just meeting expectations — that is exceeding expectations by a wide margin.

Q: What do you consider your biggest accomplishments?

A: We’re just getting started so it’s difficult to claim any major “accomplishments” at this point. However, I’m pleased with the progress we have made on Access and Affordability. We have launched some new initiatives that will drive down the cost of a degree, drive down debt and increase the graduation rate. What’s more, we have proposed a tuition freeze for 8 of 19 Commonwealth Campuses, plus minimal increases at the others. This has strong support from Governor Wolf and the General Assembly, and they are in a position to help achieve these goals with a healthy appropriation.

I’m also excited about the Invent Penn State initiative with its $30 million investment to support entrepreneurship, innovation, and student career success. I have seen excellent collaboration and cooperation on a number of fronts; for example, the Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment. I look forward to making additional progress on improving the campus climate from a values and culture standpoint. I’m also proud of the relationships I’m building with our students, faculty and the community. I recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the CBICC, which signaled a new level of partnership, and I’m inspired by the level of engagement among our students.

Q: When you first started at Penn State, you outlined six imperatives for the future. Are you satisfied with the progress made so far?

A: Yes. We are going through the six imperatives in a very systematic way. We’re taking one issue at a time, and studying it thoroughly using internal and external data. We have a great deal of discussion about where we are and where we need to go. We find our weaknesses and discuss what solutions can address them. Then I present the information around these topics to academic leaders, the Board of Trustees and to groups across the campuses. Then we refine the ideas some more.

Now we are beginning to implement some pilot programs to advance access and affordability, and economic development and student career success, as well as student engagement. We are in the analysis phase on diversity and demographics, and we’ll be looking at technology and curriculum delivery. This area is already strong with the growth and programs underway through the World Campus, but we will be examining it further. Excellence is part of everything we do. These are all important topics for our institution and higher education, so we will continue to refine and refocus in the months ahead.

Q: Why are you so passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship?

A: Penn State is uniquely positioned to accelerate the transfer of new ideas into useful products and processes that encompass a broad range of industries. We have the entrepreneurial students, we have innovative faculty and we have the business mentors to advance fledging ideas. By leveraging our size and broad research strengths, Penn State will be a driver for job creation, economic development and student career success. It also will allow us to train students at the cutting edge, and place students in those emerging fields and job opportunities. This is what it means to be a public university that combines excellence in teaching, research and service. It also strengthens our land-grant mission, making it more relevant and able to improve the quality of life for everyone in the Commonwealth, and society in general.

Q: What is Penn State’s biggest challenge?

A: We need to continue to address the issue of access and affordability. Although we have positive indicators (strong enrollment of first generation students and low default rates among our students), affording a Penn State education is a challenge for many students and families. I’ve talked about some of the initiatives we’re trying; philanthropy has also helped. Notably 91,000 scholarships and awards were created through the For the Future campaign.

I should also mention another significant challenge is promoting visibility of our excellence. We have great stories that people are hungry to hear, yet, they often get buried in the newspaper and television reports. 

Q: What are your goals for Penn State?

A: My emphasis is on making a great University even greater. The new initiatives that are underway have the potential to take us even further, and I look forward to working with everyone to reach that goal.

Last Updated May 14, 2015