Eric Barron, a former professor and dean at Penn State University and president of Florida State University, was chosen Monday to lead Pennsylvania's largest university as it continues grappling with fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He'll bring with him the experience of managing a major state university known as much for its for storied athletic program as its academic mission, as well as the fallout from a sex-abuse scandal with ties to big-time college football.
Penn State trustees unanimously approved the selection at a special meeting in State College after a 15-month search process in which university officials had kept the new president's identity secret, refusing to confirm whether Barron was even being considered until the meeting began.
Barron, who worked at Penn State for 20 years, including four as dean of its College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, will succeed President Rodney Erickson, who plans to retire when his contract expires in June. Barron is getting a five-year contract worth $1 million a year and will start in May, if not sooner.
Erickson, Penn State's former provost and executive vice president, was named president in November 2011 after then-president Graham Spanier was forced out following child molestation accusations against Sandusky, a former assistant football coach. Sandusky is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence after being convicted in 2012 of 45 counts for the sexual abuse of 10 boys. Spanier was later charged in an alleged cover-up.
Barron called the Sandusky scandal painful and saddening but focused on the changes it has brought.
"What I see is an institution that has really taken control of compliance and is no doubt now a model university that I think a lot of other universities are going to look at and say this is way we should be operating to make sure we do things the right way," he told reporters after the vote.
Barron is expected to lead Penn State through the trial of Spanier and two other former administrators who were accused of a criminal cover-up. A trial date has not been scheduled.
Barron said he never met Sandusky while working at Penn State, and he sidestepped a question about what the university should do regarding the late former head coach Joe Paterno, still a sensitive topic on campus and among alumni.
"Whatever we do, we have to make sure that we do it with a high sense of dignity and honor," Barron said. "Sometimes that takes time."
During his four years at Florida State, Barron has been an aggressive advocate for increased state funding and academic recognition for the university. He shocked FSU trustees Saturday by publicly talking about leaving the school in a newspaper interview in Florida.
Barron's academic career took off at Penn State. He joined the university's faculty in 1986 as director of the Earth System Science Center and associate professor of geosciences. In 2002, he was elevated from director of the university's Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Environment Institute to dean of the school's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
"Eric's track record as an accomplished educator, researcher, administrator, and internationally recognized scholar uniquely qualify him to guide the college's development in the coming years," Erickson, at the time Penn State's executive vice president and provost, said then.
In 2006, Barron left State College to become dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2008, Barron became director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., where years earlier, he was a geology graduate student. Two years later, he moved on to Florida State, where he became the university's 14th president.
In Barron, Penn State is getting an administrator who understands just how important athletic success is to a university.
"I really want successful athletic programs because it's the front door. It's absolutely the front door to your university," he was quoted as saying by USA Today in June 2013.
Like Penn State, FSU has recently dealt with a football scandal.
Last fall, redshirt quarterback Jameis Winston became one of the biggest attractions in college football, winning the Heisman trophy and leading the Seminoles to the national title.
But in November, a year-old sexual assault complaint against Winston became public and was passed along by Tallahassee police to the Florida state attorney's office for a full investigation. A Florida State student claims Winston raped her. Winston's attorney has said the sex was consensual. Prosecutors did not find enough evidence to charge him with a crime and the case was closed Dec. 5, two days before the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Barron had cautioned against a rush to judgment in the case. And, after no charges were to be filed, he issued a strong statement.
"Recent weeks have provided a painful lesson, as we have witnessed harmful speculation and inappropriate conjecture about this situation and the individuals involved. As a result, we have all been hurt," Barron said. "A respect for the principle of due process is essential to the integrity of our community. Our commitment to each and every one of our students is unwavering and will remain our priority."
With the return of Barron, the State College area will also be getting back an active former community member.
According to FSU's website, Molly Barron, a former teacher, was active in the State College Area School District during her husband's tenure at Penn State, acting as president of the PTO, a volunteer in the library, a kindergarten aide and substitute. She eventually took a position in the district's middle school technology program.
A native of Lafayette, Ind., Eric Barron graduated from high school in Atlanta. He earned a geology degree from Florida State in 1973 and master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Miami.
Barron will start at Penn State on or before May 12.
The FSU's Board of Trustees has called an emergency session for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday to begin a search for a new president.