Right on the heels of a grueling presidential election for the White House, another presidential selection is due to start soon, this time for Old Main.
Penn State President Eric Barron announced his intention to retire and bid farewell to the highest office at Penn State on Feb. 22, choosing the year 2022 to be his final. With this announcement comes the potential heralding of a new era for the university, one in which its highest principles and ambitions may be more fully achieved.
In many ways, Barron's tenure was an era distinct in its own right. He first took the job in 2014 and was elected to guide the university in the aftermath of the Sandusky sex abuse case. Owing to the need to mend whatever wounds remained and preserve however much prestige was left, Barron served as a barometer for the university, signaling a return to a purer and healthier atmosphere.
But another set of problems and crises have arrived on the scene, and they demand a forceful rebuking. Yes, the next president of Penn State should not only possess the correct amount of chutzpah required by the job, able to conquer the diverse difficulties lying in wait, but also reflect the diversity inherent in the student body itself.
Pull up a listing of the past presidents of Penn State, and you will find a Sears catalog of older white men. And while there's nothing particularly wrong with this genre of person, the simple demographic fact remains: We study on a campus and live in a world where the vast majority of individuals cannot be accurately described as older white men.
The last year has seen an explosion in racial awareness; protests upended major cities and brought attention to the underlying tension writhing under the surface of American society. Penn State should read the room and understand that that musky smell infecting it is the stench of stagnation, and the decay of American ideals unmollified.
What better way to make amends for the past 400 years of history, marked as they are by hurt and heartbreak, than to select a candidate who resembles the student body in both appearance and zeal for a fairer and kinder world? How long must this same body wait until a leader who breaks the tired demographic triad can actually lead?
Around the same time he handed in his retirement papers, Barron concurrently announced a new slew of diversity and inclusion initiatives. The move continues a trend toward racial and gender equity, which reached its high watermark in the Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety. Assuming Penn State holds these principles to be self-evidently worthwhile, it should enshrine them at the highest level. If a diverse, inclusive and equitable campus remains the result most desired, the best way to quicken and fulfill this goal is top-down.
Of course, the university should avoid mere tokenism. The next president must not be a figurehead fetishized for their background, and the nomination process must not be an empty gesture to score “woke” points and keep the kids appeased. Rather, the candidates' backgrounds should complement their talents and vice versa. After all, a diverse background can only make the onerous obligation of leading such a diverse student body that much easier.
In order to reach a more manifold list of candidates, the selection committee should look beyond the usual suspects; that is, current and former presidents of other colleges and universities. Just like how the ideal candidate is open-minded and genuine in their convictions, the committee is obliged to be open-minded and genuine in their search.
By expanding the list of traits that make for a good university president beyond "formerly gigged as university president," more candidates can be reached and thus considered. The most important qualities, a backbone and solid work ethic, have never been exclusive to the college president circuit.
The task remaining before the selection committee and the future president is a difficult one. Both must advance past the stage of symbolic actions full of sound but null of meaning, such as a trite email that affirms how hate has no home here or the selection of another monied, white man for the presidency. Instead, they should strive to represent the diverse interests and perspectives of the students currently bankrolling them.
The Barron era was a necessary one, and the man himself should be able to happily retire with the knowledge he laid a solid foundation for his successors.
But there still exists plenty left undone. And if the successor wants to succeed in helping Penn State adapt and diversify, they must be adaptable and diverse themselves.
Daily Collegian Opinion Editor David Tilli can be reached at email@example.com.