Eric Barron stoked his love of learning as a Florida State University undergraduate nearly four decades ago. Now the noted climate researcher is succeeding another alumnus, T.K. Wetherell, as FSU's president, but the similarities between the academic and the longtime Florida politician end there. Barron's academic heft is a welcome asset to the school, but he'll need to find a way to mimic Wetherell's political savvy for FSU to realize its ambitions and for Florida to advance its economy.
Barron graduated FSU in 1973, but he is an outsider compared to recent predecessors. He attended graduate school at the University of Miami and went on to serve as a dean at both Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas. By comparison, Wetherell spent much of his adulthood in Tallahassee, earning three degrees at FSU, serving as a legislator who rose to House speaker and later as president of Tallahassee Community College. Wetherell replaced Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, another politician who had served as dean of FSU's law school.
Picking an academic is an appropriate transition for the institution, which until about 60 years ago was the state's women's college and therefore was denied many of the resources that were largely reserved for the University of Florida. Wetherell addressed the political part of that problem: First, as part of one of the first generations of FSU male graduates to serve in the Legislature, and later as president, when he used his political experience to push FSU's cause.
But the school still struggles to define itself academically, even as its enrollment has grown. Some of its most renowned programs are in the performing arts, while its ambition is to join the Association of American Universities, the invitation-only group of 62 top universities that emphasize research. UF is the only Florida member.
That's where Barron should help. The respected scientist can provide vision and leadership to refine and fulfill academic ambitions. But his success will also depend on his ability to navigate the politics of higher education in Florida, particularly in an era of limited resources. The Legislature continues to fail to invest enough in higher education, but it did recently relax the rules on tuition so that universities might raise more money from students. More is needed. Added dollars will be essential if our state's universities are to realize their full potential as centers of innovation and economic development.
Barron might wish to take a cue from UF president Bernie Machen, who also was an outsider when he arrived in 2004. Yet Machen has been key in persuading legislators to grant universities more autonomy. To serve FSU and the state well, Barron will need to demonstrate such political prowess, too. Stronger and better higher education is key to Florida's economic future. And Eric Barron is a pivotal player in reaching that goal.