Talking leadership 15: Eric Barron on boosting entrepreneurship

The president of Penn State discusses its business hub model and leading in the aftermath of a sexual abuse scandal 

March 1, 2022
Eric Barron Penn State
Source: Penn State

How does a public university invest in entrepreneurship without risking taxpayers’ dollars and the scrutiny that would come with failure? Eric Barron, president of Penn State, thinks he has the answer.

Private institutions such as Stanford, Barron says, can risk investing in new businesses because they’re not subjected to the same critical gaze as universities like his own. Lots of Stanford’s investments fail, “they have to, right? Not every idea works. But I never hear about a failure,” he says. “If I’m a public university and I have a notable failure, I believe I will be in the newspaper.”

In the latest in our Talking Leadership series, Barron tells Times Higher Education how he has boosted entrepreneurialism across the state of Pennsylvania, why he thinks there should be less of a fuss made when a university hires its first woman or person of colour as president, and how leaders can navigate the fallout from institution-shaking abuse scandals.

Business hubs

Barron, a geoscientist by training who has led Penn State since 2014, initiated a comprehensive strategy to support student businesses in 2015 called Invent Penn State.

“At a lot of universities, the discussion is about how to do better tech transfer, how to get the intellectual property of the faculty into the marketplace. Here, we’re thinking much more broadly,” he says.

“Does the student have an opportunity to have [a business] education? Is there a place for them to go to test their ideas? Are there competitions that are available so they can test their ideas in the marketplace? Do you have the resources to let students kickstart a company instead of taking a summer job, say at a burger restaurant?”

A key part of their strategy has been setting up 21 business hubs across the state, which they call “launch boxes”. Staffed by a mixture of paid experts and volunteers, including serial entrepreneurs and law students applying their training in corporate law, they offer advice on topics ranging from business plans, de-risking ideas, patent applications and more.

Perhaps surprisingly, their doors are open to the public as well as students. Barron says this has boosted the university’s standing among the citizens of Pennsylvania, and has the added benefit of helping tackle the creeping resentment towards universities taking place across America.

He also hopes the entrepreneurialism strategy will, in the long run, help with fundraising.

“I had all of these alumni who were very successful. They see Penn State as giving them a good education, but they see their entrepreneurship as something they did themselves,” he says.

His ultimate plan is that the Elon Musks of the future will credit their alma mater and donate some of their riches.

Rewarding entrepreneurship

But how do you encourage academics to look upon obtaining patents and starting businesses in the same vein as publishing in a prestigious journal or winning a research prize?

This was a concern, he admits. “In a traditional promotion, tenure environment you’re looking at your research publications, the quality of your teaching.” At Penn State, patents are now a valid part of the promotions assessment, and the university has also instigated a faculty scholar medal for the most entrepreneurial academics.

“It took a little bit of time for people to realise this was something that that they were really proud of,” he says. “Because it was brand new, they were sort of watching to see how it would evolve.”

Critics were doubtful Penn State would attract venture capitalists given the relative poverty of the region, Barron says, but he thinks he’s proved them wrong. He says venture capitalists attend the investment fairs they put on at the university and they’ve said to him: “I like yours better than the ones that are in the cities, because you're full of fresh ideas and young, eager people.”

Some might warn against pivoting a university to focus on entrepreneurship to such an extent. Barron says having visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s he understands the dangers of controlled education and is not urging his students to become business tycoons if it’s not their bag.

“I would rather have people that are really bright, energetic and are all in for whatever it is they’re studying, because they will turn out to be successful,” he says.

Barron does admit that academics in less entrepreneurially fruitful subjects – arts and humanities, for example – may feel sidelined. “I think it’s perfectly natural when you’re making investments in new areas that people are saying, ‘So, are you not valuing my area?’” He hopes, however, that the strategy will boost public support, which will ultimately benefit those subjects too.

Navigating scandals

Before heading north to lead Penn State, Barron was president of Florida State University between 2010 and 2014. He was also at Penn State earlier in his career when he was the founding director of its Earth System Science Center, and was dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin from 2006 to 2008.

When asked about where his leadership style comes from, some might describe his answer as typically American. He relates an anecdote, in which his father was teaching him to drive and told him to focus down the road rather than on the bonnet.

“I decided this was a philosophy lesson,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in my leadership, not trying to go like this” (his hand mimes a zigzag path).

In June, Barron will be stepping down, to be replaced by Neeli Bendapudi, who grew up in India and currently leads the University of Louisville. Over the past few years, the grip by white men on the top jobs in US higher education has weakened.

“It has changed dramatically. In many ways, this is about time,” Barron says, but he thinks there is too much promotion of the fact that the institution has hired a woman of colour. “It would have been much better if Penn State said, ‘We’ve hired an exceptional person. She’s the best person in the pool.’ But everybody wants to say it’s the first woman and first person of colour to lead Penn State. I think that did her a disservice.”

It has not all been plain sailing at Penn State for Barron; the university was the location of one of the first big paedophile scandals to rock the higher education sector.

In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, assistant football coach at Penn State for 30 years, was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. Sandusky had abused 10 young boys, whom he met through a charity he founded, over a period of 15 years. The scandal reached the very top of the university when it emerged there had been several warnings that were not acted upon.

The campus community was, of course, deeply impacted and, following Sandusky’s conviction, court cases relating to those who failed to act have rumbled on for years; just last year, Graham Spanier, the16th president of Penn State, was imprisoned for two months for endangering the welfare of children.

So, how does a president lead through this period?

“Will you forgive me if I say don’t look at the end of your bonnet? Look down the road.” Barron’s main tactic, it seems, has been to avoid distraction. If he let the scandal divert him, he says, it would “drag you this way and that way.” Penn State's lawyers and communications professionals have had to deal with the scandal over the years, but he has tried to focus on the mission of the university, he says.

“One man does not make the university: we’re 100,000 students and 40,000 employees. Sadly, there will be bad people,” he adds.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing at a lot of these big universities that bad things have happened, whether it’s USC [University of Southern California] or Michigan State or Michigan and, you know, my advice is, don’t forget what you’re there for.”

Quick facts

Born: Indiana, 1951

Academic qualifications: BSc in geology from Florida State University; MSc and PhD in oceanography from the University of Miami

Lives with: His wife

Academic hero: Chris Harrison, former professor of geophysics at the University of Miami, who died in 2021. “He was constantly supporting what I was trying to accomplish in so many different ways. He was a teacher, but also mentor, but also, somehow, a promoter. I just thought he was a perfect professor.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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