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New PSU president out to ease debt burden on students

| Thursday, May 29, 2014, 12:20 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Penn State University's president Eric J. Barron speaks with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the North Shore on Thursday, May 29, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Penn State University President Eric J. Barron speaks with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the North Shore on Thursday, May 29, 2014.

Two-and-a-half weeks into his tenure as Penn State's 18th president, Eric Barron acknowledges the university faces challenges, including keeping a lid on tuition at one of the nation's priciest public research universities.

But Barron says he doesn't want to risk sacrificing quality. So, he's gathering data on student graduation rates to study it carefully.

He speculates that by tracking students and ensuring they take the right classes, Penn State could help more of them graduate in four years and keep down debt. However, he wants to review the numbers first.

“I'm a scientist. I like data. I like to make decisions based on data,” Barron said.

Barron, who sat down for a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune-Review on Thursday, is not ready to endorse bringing Penn State fully under the state's Right to Know law.

He said Florida's public records law put universities at a disadvantage in contract negotiations with ESPN and the Atlantic Coast Conference, and executive searches, and opened the door for competitors to recruit faculty when salaries were disclosed.

Barron is studying the landscape at the sprawling land grant university, flying in for quick visits to the university's 21 campuses during his first 15 days in office.

“I'm being chief sponge right now, trying to absorb as much as I can,” Barron said.

University trustees named Barron, 62, president this year after a lengthy search for a successor to Rodney Erickson.

Erickson stepped into the presidency when trustees dismissed longtime university President Graham Spanier in November 2011, following the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.

Barron, who had been president of Florida State University since 2010, previously was dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State.

Penn State professor emeritus John Dutton, 77, who preceded Barron as dean of that college, isn't surprised by Barron's cautious approach. He said Barron generally seeks consensus.

“I've seen that a couple of times in difficult situations. I think he's good at training people to support things that he would like the institution to do. He's very good at making people feel they're part of the organization and part of the progress,” he said.

Barron acknowledges that cost control is critical for the university, but said he wants to focus on a culture of excellence, accessibility and diversity.

Asked about the Freeh report, which was highly critical of Penn State's actions surrounding Sandusky, Barron said he's impressed with the school's progress adopting the report's 119 recommendations. He pointed to Penn State's establishment of an ethics office that works with the athletics compliance officer.

“They are saying, ‘Is your behavior and attitude here appropriate? And if it is not, what can we do to fix it? And if you're not willing to have it be fixed, I'm sorry, you don't work here anymore,' ” Barron said.

He said employees have been fired for ethical violations, including a prominent university figure, but declined to elaborate.

Anthony Lubrano, an outspoken Penn State trustee who was critical of Erickson, said he has no complaints about Barron.

“Without question, he is a very thoughtful, deliberative person,” Lubrano said.

Barron said he wants Penn State to assume a larger role in economic development and believes the school has potential to become a much larger driver in the state's economy.

Penn State's $850 million in research grants rank it 17th nationally among research universities.

“But we're (ranking)in the 70s, in terms of driving economic development and driving out intellectual property to the marketplace,” Barron said.

Branch campuses, many of which experienced declining enrollments, have potential to become important players in workforce development, he said.

Susan Werner, 64, of State College, who served on the State College School Board with Barron in the late 1990s, recalls him asking sharp questions during interviews of job candidates at the school district and seeking detailed information on spending proposals.

“His forte is working with people and faculty and students. I expect that will be an important part, eventually, of his legacy,” Werner said.

Debra Erdley and Adam Smeltz are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Erdley at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com and Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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