In January, Florida State University began a new year that will close a difficult decade with a dramatic changing of the guard. On Dec. 8, the university's board of trustees enthusiastically tapped Eric James Barron, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, as the university's 14th president. Barron succeeds T.K. Wetherell, who stepped down as president after serving since 2003.
On Feb. 1, Barron began his tenure as the first scientist ever to hold the post. Predictably, the news of having one of their own at the top resonated within the university's scientific ranks. Some said they see the appointment as an opportunity to increase the visibility of FSU's strengths in both basic and applied research.
A native of Lafayette, Ind., Barron also is an FSU alumnus, having earned a B.S. in 1973 in geology (although he started out thinking about a double major in sociology and geology). He subsequently received a master's and a doctorate, both in oceanography, from the University of Miami. For 20 years (1986-2006) he served as a professor of geosciences at Penn State, eventually becoming dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. He left the job in 2006 to become dean of the newly formed Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2007, he was tapped to head NCAR, based in Boulder, Colo.
By profession, Barron is a climatologist, and one who has distinguished himself through both research and service. He is a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society and the Geological Society of America. Lauded for his publishing record and his visibility in scientific circles, Barron has served on National Research Council committees almost continuously since 1987. He currently chairs an NRC committee aimed at setting a strategy for oceanographic research infrastructure for the U.S. in 2030.
Barron came to campus with his sleeves rolled up—he assumes the job at a time when the financial picture for Florida's public universities may be the bleakest in history. Florida State is feeling the pain of $82 million in state appropriations cutbacks since 2008, and faces the likelihood of significant cuts again this year. Already, the university has lost roughly 600 positions in the past three years, and the mood among faculty is glum. Contributing to this malaise is the sting of fresh new sanctions imposed on FSU in January by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, thanks to a cheating scandal that became public in 2007.
With a calm demeanor and a smile, Barron had little trouble convincing trustees that he's the right person coming at the right time for the job. He told reporters that he and his wife, Molly, looked forward to tackling the immense challenges ahead for them at his alma mater, admitting that "the rate at which (they have) to learn things is phenomenal."
"This university has incredible potential to reach a higher level in so many areas," he said. "I am deeply honored and grateful to have this opportunity to help a university community I love."—F.S.