Penn State: Weighing in on President Eric Barron’s legacy

After serving eight years as Penn State president, Eric Barron is set to officially retire Sunday.

Barron, the university’s 18th president, began his presidential tenure in 2014 and now ends a legacy punctuated by a series of milestones and defining events. He faced numerous challenges such as the pandemic, oversaw significant expansion such as the new Palmer Museum of Art and started multiple initiatives such as Invent Penn State.

Barron himself acknowledged there have been “ups and downs” these last eight years. But, at his final board of trustees meeting Friday, he told those in attendance he would do it all over again. Why?

“Because this is a special place,” said Barron, who also served as a faculty member and then dean for 20 years. “I really — really — have appreciated and enjoyed being your president for eight years. So thank you. Thank you.”

How will Barron be remembered? And what do faculty, officials and community members think about his legacy? We reached out to a dozen people to ask how they felt about Barron, who will serve as a consultant for the next year. (President-elect Neeli Bendapudi will take over Monday.)

Many were effusive in their praise and others less so. Here’s a complete look at how those contacted said they’ll remember Barron, along with thoughts on his legacy:

Ron Filippelli, former State College mayor and Penn State professor emeritus (Labor and Employment Relations): Eric served during two of most difficult periods in the university’s history. He came in when the shadow of the (Jerry) Sandusky scandal still loomed above Penn State and the local community, and in his last few years he faced the worst health crisis in modern history. He leaves with the university thriving and the community emerging from the COVID crisis. As mayor during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to witness his concern for the entire community, not just the university, when making difficult decisions. He met the challenges, and we all benefited.

Lee Anne Jeffries, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District: We thank Dr. Barron for his commitment to fostering entrepreneurship and innovation during his presidency. Establishing the Penn State Innovation Hub in the Downtown Improvement District (DID) will enrich economic development in our community and beyond, creating a ripple effect that will be felt for years to come. The DID is truly grateful for Dr. Barron’s support of our mission during his tenure through annual contributions, in-kind services and committee partnerships. WE ARE better together because of his dedication to strengthening the town and gown alliance.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, left, and Penn State President Eric Barron speak before the Governor’s speech Monday, Feb. 13, 2017 at Happy Valley Launch Box. Phoebe Sheehan

Gary King, Penn State professor (Biobehavioral Health) and co-author of “More Rivers to Cross: Black Faculty and Academic Racism at Penn State University”: Legacy can be a difficult subject to judge or assess as not even the greatest of our leaders achieve all that they set out to do and some achieve very little despite favorable circumstances. I once heard of a minister who delivered a Sunday morning sermon titled, “The Right Man at the Right Time.” The message did not resonate with any sense of profundity until now in opining on Eric Barron’s legacy as the president of Penn State. Dr. Barron assumed the presidency during the aftermath of the greatest challenge to the university’s soul and institutional character, namely, the horrific Sandusky pedophile tragedy. Barron, unquestionably, righted the ship and for that we all are immensely grateful for his leadership and courage.

I believe that this context and experience molded his leadership style and branded it with a cautious “yellow light” worldview and approach. Perhaps at the time, Penn State needed more “right” than “left,” more sloganeering (e.g., “All In” and salute to Black Lives Matter) than social engineering, and more following the times than leading the charge into the future. But as the historians have shown, the greatest of our leaders move with or in advance of the times, not behind them.

In hindsight, I am sure Barron regrets his administration’s immediate reactions to the “More Rivers to Cross” reports as unbefitting of a great university. And I believed him when he said he was sincerely moved by the empirical data and embarrassed by the experiences and comments of Black faculty about racism at Penn State. I also believe that he now understands that diversity is not the same as antiracism; that his Presidential Commission did not address the paucity of Black faculty; that his laudable appointments of African American deans and administrators were insufficient measures to address systemic racism; and that he should have done much more to hold the provost, deans and faculty heads accountable in addressing these matters. And I can only hope that at some point he will feel the same way about the Oliver Baker debacle and injustice as do I and my colleagues.

Was he the “The Right Man at the Right Time”? I bid him, Godspeed.

President Eric Barron speaks about diversity during an event on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January 2016 in Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium. Nabil K. Mark

Kelley Lynch, president of the Penn State Alumni Association: On behalf of the Penn State Alumni Association, we are grateful for everything that Dr. Barron and (wife) Molly have done and continue to do for the university.

As the president of the association, I appreciate Dr. Barron’s support and presence at alumni events like We Are Weekend, alumni awards ceremonies and meetings with Penn Staters across the Commonwealth and beyond.

As a professional in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, I am grateful for Dr. Barron’s vision to support entrepreneurs through Invent Penn State and the LaunchBoxes around the Commonwealth.

As an alumna, I am grateful to Dr. Barron for leading us through challenging times and helping us emerge stronger. I am proud that I will be able to call the Barrons Honorary Alumni of my alma mater.

Ezra Nanes, State College mayor: I first met President Barron at the university-sponsored “Love is Louder” event in the HUB. The uplifting event showed solidarity with members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Seeing Dr. Barron standing at the center of that event, surrounded by students, said a lot about how he viewed his role as a leader. His presence was symbolically important, but it also felt personal — a gesture that showed he was one of the community even as he was its leader.

Dr. Barron’s commitment to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem in State College and to make Penn State an engine of economic growth for the Commonwealth through support of entrepreneurs and small business, will leave a lasting impact. Invent Penn State, LaunchBox and the beautiful Innovation Hub in downtown State College unite the university with the community and provide open and equitable access to valuable resources.

The Musser Gap to Valleylands conservation project championed by President Barron exemplifies the alignment of University and community goals in a beneficial and sustainable way. The university’s conservation of 300+ acres of land in a key watershed and an area of great scenic, pastoral beauty — with trails designed to connect State College with Rothrock State Forest — will provide joy, health, peace and learning here for decades to come.

Kristina Petersen, Penn State Associate Athletics Director of Strategic Communications: Only time will tell which accomplishments during Dr. Barron’s time at Penn State will help define his legacy. No doubt he will long be remembered at Penn State for his devotion and commitment to the Penn State community. He came to Penn State at a difficult time in its history, and led with confidence and a genuine care for the students and their education and experience at Penn State. From an athletics perspective, Dr. Barron and Molly could frequently be seen cheering on the Nittany Lions from the sidelines for a variety of sports. Their belief in the educational value and role athletics plays in the mission of the university was felt in the support they provided to all our students and staff. It was also seen on a national level with Dr. Barron’s involvement on committees and working groups such as the College Football Playoff Board (of Managers), where he was able to also influence college football on a national scale. Thank you, Dr. Barron and Molly, for everything you have done for Penn State University and Penn State Athletics.

Penn State president Eric Barron greets fans at their tailgates before the Penn State football game against San Diego State on Saturday, September 26, 2015. Centre Daily Times, file

Michelle Rodino-Colocino, president of the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors and associate professor (Communications and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies): As Eric Barron enters his golden years as a Penn State presidential retiree, let’s reflect on his efforts to make education accessible and his paradoxical actions that undercut them.

Eric Barron was right to boost accessibility by establishing scholarships to move PSU out of last place in the Big Ten for student debt. Penn State is financially strong, but new leadership should demand the legislature take PA out of last place in higher ed funding to relieve student debt.

Boosting accessibility means supporting Black faculty, students and staff. It’s great to see PSU’s latest strategic plan call for increased diversity. Barron countered it, however, when he dismissed “More Rivers to Cross 1 & 2” that documented systemic racism. Our next president should listen by hiring and supporting 50 tenure-track Black faculty by 2026; doing so will help recruit and retain Black staff and students.

Expanding accessibility also means rewarding programs that serve Black, of color, and LGBTQIA+ students. Thus, new leadership should reverse the Barron administration’s decision to cut Integrative Arts at Altoona that disproportionately serves such diverse students. PSU should reinstate World Language courses and faculty to ensure “global engagement,” another laudable strategic goal. Above all, we need shared decision-making with faculty.

Nicholas Rowland, Penn State academic trustee and professor (Sociology): Dr. Barron was and is a friend to our students and the faculty. That you have a president who prized and lived the land-grant mission was essential. That you have a president who still teaches, contributing to the university’s noble mission to discover and learn, was inspirational. That you have a president who truly shared governance with both the University Faculty Senate as well as the board of trustees was transformational to the institution. We are grateful for the multi-form contributions made by Dr. Barron.

Something I’ll never forget was the day after we returned to campus following spring break 2020, when it was clear COVID-19 was a global pandemic that would forcefully impact the university and beyond, we held a University Faculty Senate meeting. Just before we started the meeting, getting ready to address the faculty on that pivotal day, he knew I was nervous. He looked me square in the eye, and said: “We got this; you got this.” I never needed reassurance more than at that moment, and the president — our leader — was right there, steadying the ship, guiding the institution. He will be missed and has fully and unequivocally earned his retirement.“

Penn State Board of Trustees chair Matt Schuyler presents Penn State president Eric Barron with a Penn State medal during the meeting on Friday in the Innovation Hub Building. Abby Drey

Matthew Schuyler, chair of Penn State’s board of trustees: Eric Barron was appointed Penn State’s 18th president during a tumultuous period in our history. He was the right person at the right time, having already been a respected Penn State leader with a distinguished career as a scholar and dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. He shepherded Penn State through a remarkable period of transition and growth, successfully advancing the mission of teaching, research and service.

Dr. Barron’s achievements include promoting greater access and affordability, positioning Penn State as a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation with the establishment of 21 LaunchBox locations across the Commonwealth, and growing the university’s world-class research enterprise past $1 billion in expenditures. Under his leadership, Penn State completed its most successful campaign ever, “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” which raised $2.166 billion and counting.

These and other accomplishments are even more impressive given the challenge of leading the university through an unprecedented global pandemic. Dr. Barron and his wife Molly’s shared commitment to Penn State leave a legacy of excellence and position the university for an outstanding future.

Beth Seymour, former chair of Penn State’s faculty senate and current teaching professor (Anthropology; Communications; History; and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies): Dr. Barron has provided strong leadership for Penn State in a variety of areas. As Penn State’s president, he showed a consistent commitment to social justice, access and affordability, and the land-grant mission of the university. He has been outspoken in his support for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), condemnation of racial and religious intolerance and empowered commissions to provide recommendations about social justice which he supported. Under his leadership, programs were created to provide financial support to help undergraduate students attend PSU and complete their degrees in a timely manner. His commitment to the land-grant mission manifested in his support for the important work of the commonwealth campuses.

Fritz Smith, president and CEO of Happy Valley Adventure Bureau: The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau’s collaboration with Penn State goes back years, punctuated by the successful effort to establish the former Visitor Center facility on Park Avenue, which served our destination marketing organization well for so many years. However, throughout his eight years of distinguished leadership as Penn State University President, Dr. Barron created an atmosphere of greater partnership within the community. The HVAB can point to several examples of a heightened and fruitful town and gown relationship during his tenure. Penn State faculty have provided valuable guidance to and engagement with key HVAB initiatives that not only elevated Happy Valley, PA, as a destination for visitors — helping to fuel our tourism economy — but that enhanced the quality of life for students and residents. Some highlights include:

  • Penn State professors served in a valuable advisory capacity for the 2019 launch of our joint agritourism initiative — Happy Valley Agventures — with the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County. This initiative is raising up our agricultural product and rich agricultural heritage from which Penn State was founded.
  • The HVAB’s Arts and Culture Committee has broad university representation, bringing individual expertise and a university perspective to the effort to elevate the arts in Centre County.
  • The recently established Happy Valley Sports and Entertainment Commission, of which Penn State Deputy Director of Athletics Scott Sidwell serves as vice chair, has a chance to greatly move the economic needle. Its formation is a significant first for the county and the region.
  • Penn State faculty and staff have served on the HVAB Board and on various committees, including the current host committee to welcome the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association conference to Happy Valley this fall.

The HVAB values these relationships, which help to enhance our organization’s mission. They are a direct reflection of the community culture created by Dr. Barron and fostered across university departments. Dr. Barron’s leadership produced positive results for Centre County and laid the groundwork for some exciting things yet to come.

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Penn State president Eric Barron and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf chat at the Penn State Ag Progress Days Government and Industry Day Luncheon on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. Abby Drey

Bonj Szczygiel, immediate past chair of Penn State’s faculty senate and associate professor (Landscape Architecture and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies): My first personal encounter with President Barron was through the University Faculty Senate’s FAC (Faculty Advisory Committee to the President) roughly four years ago. I’ve since had the pleasure of conferring with him this past year as senate chair on many occasions. Coming into a shared governance situation in the second year of a pandemic had its own unique stresses. There were significant disagreements over decisions being made by the university, and yet I found Eric was willing to keep an open mind while trying to make the best decisions for Penn State. A phrase often used — “I’ll have to think about that some more” — says a great deal about his leadership style, a willingness to reconsider. I remember a phone conversation we had as he was driving to State College during a rainstorm last fall. He knew there were problems and sought to understand the concerns of the faculty better. That is Eric’s legacy to my mind … thanks to his inquisitive and open-minded nature, many important initiatives from the senate were supported throughout his term.

Incoming Penn State president Neeli Bendapudi listens to president Eric Barron during the Penn State Board of Trustees meeting on Friday in the Innovation Hub Building. Abby Drey

Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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