New PSU leader already navigated a crisis at Florida State

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - When Eric Barron took over as president of Florida State University in early 2010, the school wasn't in trouble. It was in crisis.

Dozens of faculty and staff had been laid off, whole departments shuttered or merged, everyone upset by the profound budget cuts imposed by the state legislature. Teachers had lost confidence in the ability of FSU leaders to speak truthfully about the school's deteriorating finances and what that meant for the future.

Into that hurricane Barron brought a simple and steadying message: Everybody counts. Everybody matters, be they research scientist or English instructor. From him, everyone would get the same information, the same fact sheet, the same PowerPoint presentation.

People here say he stuck to his word. And that credibility enabled him to stabilize and then improve the university in important ways, despite continuing budget pressures. Under Barron, FSU became one of only two Florida universities to meet state standards for "preeminence" - a designation that carries $15 million a year in added funding.

"He got everyone pointed in the same direction," said Faculty Senate president Gary Tyson, a computer-science professor.

Now, in taking over the presidency of Pennsylvania State University, Barron is going home, back to the school where he was a professor and dean, to the community where he and his wife, Molly, raised their two children.

His ultimate plans for Penn State, his ability to quell the enduring vitriol from the Sandusky sex scandal, and his capacity to win over cautious Pennsylvania legislators are for now speculation.

What's clear from interviews with people who know and work with Barron is the nature of the man himself:

He grew up a nerdy, shy child who had to force himself to become more engaging toward others. Even now he's bad with names, telling his staff to make sure people at university functions wear extra-large name tags.

He's a tactician, not a politician, but one who schooled himself in the intricate and often punishing art of Florida politics that's crucial to FSU. His predecessor as president was a former speaker of the House, as was the chairman of the university board.

He's largely without airs. For an interview here, Barron appeared alone, minus the entourage of aides and public-relations assistants who tend to accompany college presidents. Teachers and staff say he's collegial.

"He is as straight and honest a person as you'll ever meet," said Allan Bense, chair of the FSU Board of Trustees.

The school to which Barron is headed bears strong similarities to - and key distinctions from - the one he's leaving.

Both are major public research institutions with huge student bodies - 41,000 at FSU, and 46,200 at Penn State's main campus, with an additional 52,000 at satellite sites across the state. Both run dominant, nationally ranked, and hugely popular football programs - and face criticism of putting too much emphasis on sports.

Both schools possess quirky charms: Penn State operates its own dairy, turning cow's milk into ice cream. Florida State runs its own circus, with a big top on campus for students who yearn to become tightrope walkers or jugglers. Its roster of alumni includes not only Barron, who graduated from here in 1973, but former Gov. Charlie Crist, Playboy Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon, and singer Jim Morrison of the Doors.

In the end, though, Penn State is bigger and better. Its $4.4 billion budget dwarfs the $1.3 billion of FSU, and among public universities it's ranked eighth, while FSU sits at 40.

Still, people here were shocked to learn of Barron's departure, and disappointed to lose him. There's also a sense that while he built a strong foundation, including the replacement or hiring of seven top administrators in three years, it would have been nice if he'd stayed to put up the walls and roof.

He leaves halfway through a $1 billion fund-raising campaign and with the university's strategic plan to become a top-25 school still very much a plan.

"People said, 'You didn't cross the finish line here.' Well, if you have good ideas, those ideas will live beyond," Barron said. "This institution has moved a long way in four years."

He's heard the talk that, at 62, he'll be a caretaker president at Penn State, keeping the school on a sure if uninspired course. To that he offers a two-word response:

"Zero chance," he said.

The idea seems to have started in Texas, but the Florida legislature loved it: Make colleges more accountable for how they spend public tax dollars by setting a specific set of measures in exchange for extra funding.

The subsequent 2013 legislation defined a series of rigorous benchmarks on research spending, freshman retention, patent awards, graduation rates, and academy memberships that on the FSU campus have been reduced to one word: metrics.

In what could have been defeat, people here say, Barron found victory through strategy. He didn't resist the concept of measurable criteria. In fact, he told legislators that FSU would embrace the concept - but the school needed to have a strong voice in designing the standards.

"To me," said dean of undergraduate studies Karen Laughlin, "that was a really smart move. It was talking to the legislature in a language they were speaking, and fine-tuning it in a way that suited the university."

It didn't hurt that FSU had been named the nation's most efficient university, as judged by U.S. World News & Report, credited with having scraped and saved every possible dollar.

"He embraced, totally, the concept of 'preeminence,' " said State Sen. Bill Montford, vice chair of the education committee. "I detected no reservation on his part."

Only FSU and the University of Florida qualified as "preeminent," which is more than a fancy label, providing $75 million over five years to hire faculty, increase student scholarships, and expand research programs.

"Barron took our Republican governor's propensity for metrics," said longtime music professor Clifford Madsen, "and set standards that we've met."

At Florida State, the president's office sits in the Westcott Building, with its castlelike turrets and gurgling fountain out front. Barron is less formal than the building, comfortable in a black turtleneck and gray tweed jacket.

"I always wanted to be a geologist," he said, seated at a round table. "Never an intention to become an administrator. Only wanted to teach classes."

But as he led small teams and then large groups, he said, two things happened: One, people told him he was good at it. Two, he found joy in helping people achieve - and in trumpeting their successes.

Today Barron remains, at heart, a scientist, his expertise in climate and environmental change. He's been dean of geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. In 20 years at Penn State, he rose to become dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

"There's not too many scientists who run universities," Barron said. "We don't have the personality for it."

For a half hour, he fielded questions:

Will the persistence of the Sandusky scandal - former president Graham Spanier and two aides face criminal trial - affect how he runs Penn State?

"I'm not sitting here with that one on my mind," Barron said. Yes, many people, the alumni in particular, carry strong and complex emotions about the scandal and its aftermath, he said. At the same time, Penn State has done everything possible to comply and to disclose, and he expects the bad publicity to continue to recede.

Should the senior administrators at Penn State start looking for new jobs?

No, he said. "I have enormous respect for the people at Penn State," Barron said. "This isn't something where I feel, 'I have to have my own people.' I'll learn from them and they'll learn from me."

Only once did Barron balk. "I'm not going to answer that," he said.

The query: Will he restore the statue of former football coach Joe Paterno to its place of honor outside Beaver Stadium?

In declining to answer, Barron mentioned a name: Bobby Bowden, the legendary football coach who in 2009 was forced into retirement during a messy, public separation from FSU.

For four years, Bowden refused to set foot upon the field that bears his name.

It was Barron, among others, who last year orchestrated Bowden's celebrated return to the stadium and the embrace of the university.

The FSU Board of Trustees called an emergency meeting Wednesday, but in reality the emergency was already over.

Barron had turned in his resignation, effective April 2. The only real question was when to launch a search committee for a new president.

Chairman Bense promised the board and university staff that bright days lay ahead, that FSU is great and improving, that top candidates would want the president's job. Barron had told him confidentially, before the news broke, about the offer from Penn State. Bense said he was surprised. But he couldn't be angry.

"I knew he loved Penn State," Bense said in an interview.

Barron spoke only once, and briefly. He apologized, said he was sorry that people learned of his plans from a news leak. He swore he'd do everything possible to help FSU while he remains. He said it was painful to leave.

"This place is incredibly important to me," he said. "I love it deeply."

Barron told the board members they must be able to frankly discuss the search for his successor, without the discomfort of his being there to hear it. He stood and looked briefly at the crowd, then turned out the door and was gone.

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage