What are the Ratings Services Saying about Penn State?

Under Eric Barron, and the Penn State Board of Trustees, Penn State has taken the largest drop in the nation. Is it time for a change?

Since 2014 Penn State University has taken the largest drop in rankings of any Top 100 university in the country.
Let’s take a look at what they concluded, and then discuss why it has taken place (and on whose watch).

The most widely-cited and referenced rating service, US News and World Report College Rankings, have been compiling data and rankings since 1983. In 2014, when Eric Barron was hired, Penn State ranked 37th in the nation, and 3rd in the Big Ten (behind only Northwestern and Michigan).

Penn State ranked 3rd in the Big Ten, behind Northwestern and Michigan, when Eric Barron took office.

Since Eric Barron became Penn State’s 18th president, the University has dropped from 3rd to 9th in the Big Ten and from 37th to 67th in the nation, the largest decline of any Top 100 university in the nation.

Under Eric Barron and the current Board of Trustees, Penn State has dropped from 3rd to 9th in the Big Ten.

Sadly enough, that decline – from 37th to 67th, and from 3rd to 9th in the Big Ten – was the (relatively) good news.
US News now publishes two sets of rankings. The traditional ranking examines academic issues – faculty quality, graduation and retention rates, etc – while the second ranking, called the Value Ranking, expands upon the first to incorporate costs, primarily tuition, into the mix.

In the Value Ranking, which combines quality with cost, Penn State has fallen to dead last among the fourteen Big Ten schools:

The Best Values in the Big Ten? Penn State, under Eric Barron and the Board of Trustees, now ranks 14th – dead last – in the Big Ten.

A couple of additional interesting items emerge from the data:

  • Purdue University, which hired Mitch Daniels in 2013 as their new president, has been the fastest riser in the Big Ten. President Daniels has been lauded as a problem-solver who is a polar opposite to Eric Barron in terms of priorities and approach.
  • Florida State, the university that Eric Barron led before being enticed to take the Penn State job, was ranked 97th in the nation under Barron and has risen forty-two spots up to 55th in the nation since he left. A ‘Barron Effect’ seems to be in play here — after Eric Barron changed teams, Penn State had the largest drop, and Florida State had the largest rise.

The effect of a university president on the Academic and Value rankings of their school cannot be overstated. Some might say it is one of the most important metrics to evaluate any president, as it boils down all of the various challenges of the job – and, clearly and quantitatively, says “How Did He/She Do?”
Under Eric Barron, the answer is not simply “Not Good”. The answer is, even being kind, “About as Bad as Possible”.

So, who is ultimately responsible? The installation of a failed president – and the retention of such a president for eight years, including continual and repeated contract extensions and “merit” increases – is the responsibility of the Board. In this case, the Penn State Board of Trustees.
Penn State can do better. We know this because Penn State, in the past, has done better. Dramatically better.

We need Trustees who are willing to engage and accept responsibility for such important decisions, like the selection of the University President. And Trustees, once engaged, who have the ability to manage these important tasks effectively.

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