Talking leadership 15: Eric Barron on stimulating entrepreneurship


How can a public university invest in entrepreneurship without risking taxpayer dollars and the scrutiny that failure would bring? Eric Barron, president of Penn State, thinks he has the answer.

Private institutions such as Stanford, Barron says, may risk investing in new ventures because they are not subject to the same critical scrutiny as universities like his. A lot of Stanford investments fail, “they have to, don’t they?” Not all ideas work. But I never hear about failure,” he says. “If I’m a public university and have a notable fail, I believe I’ll be in the paper.”

In the latest in our Talking Leadership series, Barron recounts Times Higher Education how he boosted entrepreneurship across the state of Pennsylvania, why he thinks there should be less noise when a university hires its first woman or person of color for president, and how leaders can manage the fallout from abuse scandals rocking institutions.

Business poles

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

“In many universities, the discussion is about how to improve technology transfer, how to bring faculty intellectual property to market. Here, we think much more broadly,” he says.

“Does the student have the possibility of having [a business] education? Is there a place where they can go and test their ideas? Are competitions available for them to test their ideas in the marketplace? Do you have the resources to allow students to start a business instead of taking a summer job, for example in a hamburger restaurant? »

A key part of their strategy has been setting up 21 business centers across the state, which they call “launch boxes.” Made up of a mix of paid and volunteer experts, including serial entrepreneurs and law students applying their background in corporate law, they offer advice on topics ranging from business plans, downsizing ideas risks, patent applications and more.

Perhaps surprisingly, their doors are open to the public as well as students. Barron says it has strengthened the university’s standing among the citizens of Pennsylvania and has the added benefit of helping to combat the rampant resentment toward universities that is taking place across America.

He also hopes that the entrepreneurship strategy will help raise funds in the long term.

“I had all these former students who did very well. They see Penn State as giving them a good education, but they see their entrepreneurial spirit 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 wealth.

Rewarding entrepreneurship

But how do you encourage academics to consider obtaining patents and starting a business in the same way as publishing in a prestigious journal or winning a research prize?

It was a concern, he admits. “In a traditional promotion and tenure environment, you look at your research publications, the quality of your teaching.” At Penn State, patents have become an integral part of graduating class, and the university has also launched a Professor’s Medal for the most enterprising scholars.

“It took a little while for people to realize that was something they were really proud of,” he says. “Because it was brand new, they were kind of watching to see how it was going to evolve.”

Critics doubted Penn State would attract venture capitalists given the region’s relative poverty, Barron says, but he thinks he’s proven them wrong. He says venture capitalists go to the investment fairs they have at college and have said to him, “I like yours better than the ones in the cities, because you’re full of people.” fresh ideas and enthusiastic young people. ”

Some might caution against pivoting a university to focus so heavily on entrepreneurship. Barron says he visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s, he understands the dangers of controlled education and doesn’t urge his students to become business tycoons if that isn’t their bag.

“I would rather have people who are really bright, energetic and ready for anything they study, because they will succeed,” he says.

Barron admits that scholars in less entrepreneurially successful subjects — the arts and humanities, for example — can feel left out. “I think it’s only natural when you’re making investments in new areas that people say, ‘So you’re not valuing my territory? subjects too.

Navigating Scandals

Before heading north to lead Penn State, Barron served as 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 Dean of the Jackson School. in geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin from 2006 to 2008.

When asked where his leadership style comes from, some might describe his response as quintessentially American. He tells an anecdote, in which his father taught him to drive and told him to concentrate on the road rather than on the hood.

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

In June, Barron will step down to be replaced by Neeli Bendapudi, who grew up in India and currently heads the University of Louisville. In recent years, the hold of white men on the highest positions in American higher education has weakened.

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

It wasn’t all smooth sailing at Penn State for Barron; the university was the scene of one of the first major pedophile scandals to rock the higher education sector.

In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, an 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 top of the university when it emerged that there had been several warnings which were not followed.

The campus community was, of course, deeply affected, and following Sandusky’s conviction, court cases relating to those who failed to act rumbled on for years; last year Graham Spanier, the 16th president of Penn State, was jailed for two months for endangering the welfare of children.

So how does a president lead during this time?

“Will you forgive me if I tell you not to look at the end of your cap? Look down the road. Barron’s main tactic, it seems, has been to avoid distraction. If he let the scandal turn him away, he says, it “would drag you this way and the other”. Lawyers and communications professionals at Penn State have dealt with scandal over the years, but tried to focus on the university’s mission, he says.

“A man does not make the university: we are 100,000 students and 40,000 employees. Unfortunately, there will be bad people,” he adds.

“Unfortunately, we see at a lot of these great universities that bad things have happened, whether it’s at USC [University of Southern California] or Michigan State or Michigan and, you know, my advice is, remember why you’re here.


Fast facts

Not: 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 supportive of what I was trying to accomplish in so many different ways. He was a teacher, but also a mentor, but also, in a way, a promoter. I just thought he was a perfect teacher.


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

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