Penn State's board unanimously appoints Eric Barron as university's 18th president

Eric J. Barron (left) answers questions from reporters after being unanimously voted Pennsylvania State University's new president.
Eric J. Barron (left) answers questions from reporters after being unanimously voted Pennsylvania State University's new president. (RALPH WILSON /AP)
Posted: February 19, 2014

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - A still-fractured Pennsylvania State University came together Monday in perhaps its most unified showing since the child sex-abuse scandal erupted, as its board of trustees unanimously voted to hire a new president.

Eric J. Barron, a climatologist with 20 years' experience at Penn State who most recently served as president of Florida State University, will start on or before May 12.

"I hope the winds of change are blowing in the form of a renowned climatologist named Eric J. Barron," said university trustee Anthony Lubrano. "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."

Barron, 62, got a five-year contract with an annual base salary of $800,000 - $200,000 more than current president Rodney Erickson, and twice what he was earning in Florida. He also will get a $200,000 signing bonus, opportunity for $200,000 retention bonuses in subsequent years, and a $1 million payment if he stays five years.

Taking the lectern to a round of applause, Barron - who left Penn State in 2006 - called the job a dream come true. As a Penn State geosciences professor and dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Barron said, he learned the "push for excellence" and "the power of community," and carried those traits with him in his eight-year absence.

"In many ways, I never left Penn State. Penn State lives here. Penn State lives here," Barron said, pointing to his head and his heart.

Barron's selection culminated a more-than-yearlong search to find a new leader for the 98,000-student, 24-campus institution, Pennsylvania's flagship university. In late October, trustees were poised to give the job to David R. Smith, president of the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, until allegations surfaced that he received unauthorized payments from outside sources.

Both Barron and Penn State officials declined to pinpoint whether Barron entered the search process before or after the Smith appointment fell through. Barron said only that his interest in the job was "very recent."

Faculty, staff, and students said they were excited to see one of their own get the job.

"It's known that he has the established Penn State values," said senior Caitlin Lesko, a nutrition major from Weatherly, Carbon County.

Barron, an avid racquetball player, raised his two children in State College and served on the local school board.

"You can't beat that," said Michael Bérubé, director of Penn State's Institute for Arts and Humanities.

Bérubé also likes that Barron is skilled as a fund-raiser - he is leading a $1 billion campaign at Florida State - and a respected educator.

"He's not a suit. He's a very serious academic," Bérubé said, noting that faculty were "happy" and "relieved."

Barron was measured in his comments, careful when addressing hot-button issues. Penn State is still dealing with the fallout of the scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, now in prison for sexually assaulting young boys. Some alumni remain angry that the trustees agreed to football sanctions handed down by the NCAA and fired Joe Paterno as head football coach.

Barron was complimentary about the university's current position on sexual abuse.

"What I see is an institution that has really taken control of compliance and is no doubt now a model university," he said.

Asked what role Paterno's legacy should have, Barron said, "My feeling is, the wisest answer is to tell you to give me time, OK? . . . Whatever we do, we have to make sure we do it with a high sense of dignity and honor."

During the meeting, Lubrano praised Barron, noting in particular his handling of the controversy when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape. Barron said at the time that he would wait for the legal outcome. Winston was not charged and went on to lead the school to a national championship in January.

"You exhibited great courage and leadership when some in the media and public were quick to condemn," Lubrano said.

Lubrano is among trustees still upset that Penn State agreed to the NCAA sanctions, including a $60 million fine and loss of bowl games and scholarships, before the outcome of criminal cases against Penn State administrators accused of failing to act on allegations that Sandusky abused young boys on and off campus.

Of the Winston case, Barron said, "It's incredibly important that an institution follow due process." Taking sides, he said, would have been a mistake.

"It's an interesting lesson, and one that I won't forget," he said.

There has been speculation that Barron may not be a long-term president, such as Graham B. Spanier, who was at the helm for 16 years before the Sandusky crisis forced him out. Barron dismissed the notion of an early departure.

A native of Lafayette, Ind., Barron earned a bachelor's degree in geology from Florida State and master's and doctoral degrees in oceanography from the University of Miami.

Under his leadership, Florida State, a sprawling system of 41,500 students, was ranked by U.S. News and World Report in December as the most efficiently operated university in the nation. News of Barron's impending departure in a Tallahassee newspaper interview Saturday shocked Florida State trustees.

Barron said his first priority at Penn State would be to learn about the university as it stands. He will spend a half-day with each dean to hear about his or her triumphs and struggles, he said.

"The way it works well," Barron said, "is when you have a full sense of the strengths of an institution and those weaknesses."

He will oversee a 44,000-employee enterprise that has an annual budget of more than $4 billion, but has had to cope with flat or declining state funding in recent years.

Erickson, who took over for Spanier in November 2011 when Sandusky was indicted, had made it clear he wanted to leave by June 30 of this year.

"This is an important day in the life of the university," said Michael Paul, director of space systems initiatives at the university's Applied Research Lab. "I'm really glad it's come to a good conclusion."


ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

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