The two years since Eric J. Barron became Pennsylvania State University's 18th president have been anything but uneventful for the institution. In that short period, the former Florida State University chief has seen record acceptances — so much so that students were offered a discount to start at a branch campus rather than University Park — and the growth of an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship program. In a time of tumult on many campuses, Barron has also notably been proactive in addressing sensitive issues and concerns within a campus community that is still recovering from its own high-profile scandal.
We recently caught up with Barron to discuss STEM and entrepreneurship pushes in higher ed, the uptick in applicants, his leadership strategy, and more.
EDUCATION DIVE: The university has an intercollege entrepreneurship program, with a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation launching the year before you became president. What are the statewide implications of the program and what do you see as the greatest value it brings to students across majors?
ERIC J. BARRON: We actually have launched a whole program, which is titled “Invent Penn State,” and there are several different elements of this. One is to do more to incentivize people on campus to get their ideas out into the marketplace. We have many, many student events that are competitions and have scholarship funds at the end of it. The second part of it is to add more visibility to our intellectual property. A third part is to build an ecosystem around our campuses that promote startups and partnerships with communities.
A general view, in my opinion, is that many universities are focused on this topic as a source of revenue, not as educational experiences for students and opportunities for them to do startups. We have a lot of effort on the student side. The minors have expanded. I think we have six or seven entrepreneurship minors now that are embedded in curriculum for different colleges if you want. Last year, we started having any student with any major to be able to get all the credits equivalent to a minor in business. There’s a lot on that side plus startup weeks and other activities with a scholarship side of it.
We have funded but have not yet cut the ribbon on a total of 20 incubators and accelerators around the state of Pennsylvania associated with our campuses. In March, we cut the ribbon on what’s called Happy Valley Launch Box, which is here in State College, with the idea of having 30 startups in there at any one time. I think we had about 15 before even 30 days. All of these have gone through some sort of vetting process or competition for which they were winners. It’s growing just left and right. Many of them, we’ve given them seed money and they’ve gotten many times more money from their community and other partners that want to enable the students.
We opened it up to community members, to our faculty, to our staff, to students. A lot of them are student companies. We’ve got a lot of students really keenly interested in this space, and we’re doing a lot with our community members to say, “OK, we’re going to get these young folks started and make sure they have legal assistance and make sure they understand how to protect their IP, but we’re gonna have to hand them off to the community to help the community make sure they’re in inexpensive space and are continuing to be mentored.
A couple of years ago, we started the minor, and now we have a very comprehensive effort that crosses all of those different areas that I mentioned. We now have a faculty scholar medal, which is on entrepreneurship and economic development, not just teaching and research. The first IP fair’s coming up in October for the entire university. So there’s a lot going on there. Very exciting, I think.
With programs like that, along with the benefits for students and community, how much additional thought goes into the potential impact on academic ranking, as well?
BARRON: It’s interesting. I don’t think we’ve really thought about it too much in terms of our ranking. We are mostly just thinking about it in terms of the fact that we see the interest of our students, and we see the value of working to develop something — run into a wall, pivot, learn to go in a different direction to solve problems. We see that as valuable to the education side of things. And we see a tremendous longterm value to having our students believe that we’re here to help them with their life success. I’m trying to think if there’s any category in a ranking that actually would give us points, so to speak, in that space, and I can’t immediately think of one. It wasn’t what we were thinking about.
Many institutions report having fewer applicants, and that conversation tends to include pressure points around access and affordability — but Penn State saw record enrollment this year to the point that students were offered financial incentives to start at a branch campus. To what does the university credit that uptick in applicants?
BARRON: Last year was an all-time record. This year, we beat the record by at least 3,000. If we look at grad school, med school, law school, undergraduate, it looks like we’ll hit 134,000 applications. It’s quite fascinating. We have targets, and our yield was higher than anticipated as well. So we offered 9,000 students scholarships if they would start at one of our commonwealth campuses for a year, and of the 9,000, we only had a couple hundred takers. But, in my mind, Penn State’s reputation for being high-quality and to have our students be very successful in the job market is part of what’s contributing to that demand.
It’s interesting. We have not used a common app, and if we use a common app or one of these consortium application forms, we think our applications will take a jump up again. So students have to work hard to apply here because we do it differently than anybody else.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have articles in The Wall Street Journal that say Penn State is where corporate America is turning to recruit. We just got ranked 15th in “Best Places to Start a Company.” Two years ago, we would not have gotten that ranking, I don’t think. We just got ranked No. 1 by College Magazine for the most-networked alumni once you graduate. It’s just a fine school, and I think we’ve got a lot of people who are looking at this as a great place.
Access and affordability issues are incredibly important. We’ve launched all sorts of programs to help particularly need-based students to be successful. For a public, anybody who’s looking at our price tag knows we’re not cheap. We don’t get a lot of support from the state, so it’s fascinating that even with that circumstance, we have record applications and a record incoming class.
It’s really interesting that only a few hundred people accepted the discount. I think the number I read was as much as $15,000.
BARRON: Yeah, it was up to $15,000. But those were students who wanted to come to University Park. We’ve ended up with about 900 more students at University Park for freshmen than we anticipated, and they want to be here. It’s an interesting comparison to access and affordability arguments to realize that the demand is that strong.
With the push for more STEM graduates being a growing driver of the higher ed business model, as well, how much does that factor into the university’s World Campus, and particularly the decision to place a program at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot?
BARRON: This institution has always been a very strong STEM institution with a very large and successful engineering program, college of science, a life sciences consortium, a material sciences consortium, a college of earth and mineral sciences. So it really has for a long time had a very strong STEM program.
I haven’t seen this sort of discussion of how to get more [STEM] students here. We have a target number and we accept students based on their credentials, and with that many applicants, you can imagine we have a very large group of high-performers we accept simply on test scores and grade point and where they’re coming from, and some that don’t even come close, and then a lot of discussion about people that are in a middle group. But there’s no leaning to say we’ve gotta get more people into this program or that program. We just work at having a strong quality program.
The World Campus is interesting because, even though online education has been flat for a couple of years, our program has had double-digit growth each year for the last several years and got ranked as the best online baccalaureate degree. Combine that with the fact that we have a service-oriented mission as a land grant, and part of that is a long history of connections with veterans and active service members, and I think that combination is what resulted in the West Coast program to enable active military to use the World Campus to start their journey to a Penn State degree. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out, but it certainly seems like it’s gonna be quite successful.
A number of executives still say they value skills learned in liberal arts curriculum on top of STEM skills, so what do you see as the place for the liberal arts among the STEM push in higher ed as a whole?
BARRON: I think what you want are students that have a certain amount of passion for a field and for a topic, and high-quality faculty, and those students will be successful. A lot of what is being hired today and that is drawing corporations to come here in droves for our job fairs and narrowing their recruiting lists to a few schools, what they’re looking for are good communication skills, good critical thinking skills, and they’re also looking for work ethic. I do think we have a student body and an attitude here that promotes a strong work ethic.
Part of our notion of having a set of business courses that any major could take is the notion that, if you’re a history major, you may not plan to be a historian. You may go off and do all sorts of things as a history major, so shouldn’t we advantage that student in the job market? But I see an awful lot of hiring that is not “I must have a X or a Y.” They’re looking for more general skills that certainly they get in the liberal arts. Of course, it’s not always true. If you need an engineer, you need an engineer. I’m very proud of the strength of our liberal arts programs and very proud that they produce successful grads.
One thing I’ve noticed about your leadership style is that you take a proactive approach to issues, tackling a lot of sensitive topics in your blog. How would you describe your general strategy to approaching the university presidency? Do you see anything in particular as pros or cons within that strategy?
BARRON: I guess I have to say that my particular strategy is that I need to leave it better than I found it. I also believe strongly that you get someplace faster by having a sense of what direction you’re going in and why, and then making sure the different parts of the university are working toward a common goal.
Certainly, if you look at many of the topics [in the blog] — and some of them very sensitive topics — these are topics of American higher education and even international higher education. I don’t think hiding from them and waiting for something to happen is a particularly good strategy. I would rather be proactive, and I would rather be setting the stage — whether it’s entrepreneurship or focusing university resources on impactful topics or looking at access and affordability, not from the viewpoint of a tuition increase, but from the viewpoint of who’s not graduating, who’s taking on too much debt and why are they taking on too much debt, and why are they taking so long — and focusing on that as a particular issue.
I just feel comfortable with thinking that way. I’m hoping the people around me in this university also see it the same way. And I didn’t make it up myself — I listen to the people in this institution and issues around this country. So I feel good that these are good directions to go in, and it’s healthy to be talking about all these things out loud.
What advice would you give to presidents at other institutions facing those same issues, but perhaps not as proactively?
BARRON: In my opinion, even if you think you’re good at it, we all fail on communication. It’s never what it needs to be. But taking a serious look at how it is you’re communicating and how you think you can improve it will pay off for just about anybody. Sometimes that’s not so easy. There are many, many times, even with my alumni, that I’ve tackled difficult issues, but by explaining why I’m in a position that I am, I have an awful lot more people who sit there and say, “OK, I may not agree with you, but I get it.” I’m far from perfect in this space, and there are many times I kick myself and go, “Why didn’t I communicate that?” But the first thing that I see in an administrative review that people fall down on is communication, and it pays you back the more you do.