Dr. Eric Darr: Embracing and Revolutionizing the Education Sector

10 Best Influential Educational Leaders in 2022

Accomplishing one’s dreams requires vision, passion, and tenacity.

Dr. Eric Darr always dreamed of “building a university” and he is well on his way to fulfilling his hopes and dreams.  Business Leaders Review presents you the journey of an avid leader, Dr. Eric Darr, President, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.  

Below are the highlights of the interview conducted between Business Leaders Review and Dr. Eric Darr.

Provide us with detailed information about your professional journey, your mission, and your vision.

I started in academia as a professor teaching graduate students for seven years at UCLA. There, I leveraged that “typical faculty gig” into serving as a partner for Ernst & Young (now EY), leading a consulting practice on knowledge management – the science and art of using technology to improve organizational practices.

Today, I am the president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Harrisburg University broke the mold of higher education. Today, HU serves as a model for the flood of new start-up universities intended to make higher education relevant and accessible – something HU has done since its incorporation in 2001 and the graduation of its first class in 2007.

Who are you as a person, we would like to feature your contributions to society as a part of the success story?

I served in executive and faculty roles before being named HU president in 2013. Since then, I have overseen HU’s growth and its positioning as a new model of higher education. While HU’s downtown Harrisburg campus is the operations hub, I developed a philosophy of taking education where the students are, with satellite locations in Philadelphia, Panama, and online. I can’t pinpoint the origins of the idea, except that it “always struck me as common sense” to give opportunities to bright young people, regardless of location.

I came back to my central Pennsylvania hometown in 2000 to help start a software company specializing in training technology for banks and insurance companies operating in an atmosphere of heightened regulatory scrutiny.

Then, I received a call from the mayor of Harrisburg, the late Stephen R. Reed. The mayor envisioned a university in Pennsylvania’s capital city, devoted to building a science and technology workforce for the region, and creating educational opportunities for students underserved educationally and underrepresented in STEM.

What’s your vision for the upcoming academic year?

We are working hard to take our programs to other parts of the United States and the world. You cannot learn the programs we have solely online, but you have to be there. We’re dedicated to giving students hands-on experience with sophisticated equipment, sophisticated procedures, and figuring things out on their own. That’s science and technology. That’s the way it works.

Harrisburg University functions on a downtown campus, delivering classes in a specially built tower and housing students by rehabbing historic commercial buildings. Looking ahead, we will preside over the christening of a new, $100 million Education Center in downtown Harrisburg. When it opens in 2023, the state-of-the-art center will house HU’s health sciences, advanced manufacturing, and interactive media programs, meeting the needs of employers for a skilled workforce and the needs of students for accessible, rigorous learning and leadership training in surging fields.

Who was your role model growing up? To whom do you follow in the same industry?

As a Ph.D. student studying Industrial Administration at Carnegie Mellon University, I studied under Herbert Simon, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences and a father of artificial intelligence. For my money, Herb was probably one of the smartest humans that ever walked the planet. I didn’t know DaVinci, and I didn’t know Copernicus, but what I’ve taken from Herb is the importance of interdisciplinary work, and how that’s critical to everything you do, whether it’s building a business, building a university, thinking about how you educate people, and how you solve problems in the world.

Kindly walk us through the early stage of the University. How did it all start?

I and five other regional leaders huddled to conceptualize a new educational model. I was writing whitepapers for an interesting concept, dreaming up ways that a new university could use what worked in traditional higher education, jettison the deadweight, and take advantage of technology.

When funders and local officials started taking the idea seriously, I saw a spark to make dreams into a reality. Then, I joined the start-up university as chief financial officer – one of five or so people on staff – when it was nothing but an idea, but the thought of building something new was the draw.

Please share some of your greatest achievements, challenges, and how you tackled those obstacles?

Two disparate but people-related achievements became foundational successes that emerged from challenges. The first was convincing investors to back the university financially so we could build our facilities. They were not insignificant amounts. These are sophisticated, smart people that we’re convincing to invest money. There has to be something right or something good in what we’re trying to achieve. Otherwise, they would take their money and put it elsewhere.

The second achievement is the staff and faculty hired at HU, including many who remain a decade later.

Most people don’t think about universities as a business, but in some sense, I do, and the business is only as good as the people. The university is only as good as the faculty and the leadership. We’ve searched the world — literally done searches across the planet – to find people, and we’ve been able to attract them to what we’re doing at Harrisburg University.

How did you cope with the pandemic and what safety measures did you follow?

The pandemic convinced nonbelievers that students could learn virtually, giving higher education a mandate to pursue new methods for delivering education. When students returned to in-person classes, we adopted numerous safety measures to help protect them, faculty, and staff. Those include a mask mandate in all of HU’s buildings, increased cleaning and sanitation measures, and the installation of automatic doors and more.

Share your thoughts on online education, how it is nurturing students’ and educators’ life respectively?

I believe virtual learning is here to stay. It is not going anywhere. Higher education needs to figure out how to take advantage of the best of virtual education and the best of face-to-face learning. It’s not either/or. It’s how they work together for the benefit of students. Hopefully, we can now start to see what technology allows to create personalized learning for students.

How do you manage to deliver seamless offerings?

We do it through a small student-to-faculty ratio, which means our students enjoy meaningful interactions with the brightest minds in their fields. Our professors routinely go above and beyond to ensure our students understand the subject matter and are prepared to go into the workforce. HU also employs student success coordinators who work with students to prepare them for the rigors of their coursework. Our faculty also integrate their corporate and industry experience to provide an incomparable experiential learning experience.

How does integration of STEM education embrace the overall development of students and other individuals?

The integration of STEM education into the growth and development of today’s students and others is essential to their success and fulfillment.

Every aspect of our lives gets touched by science and technology. To have some understanding is essential. Whether or not you work in a particular STEM industry may be irrelevant. Maybe you end up working as an attorney, but to fully live your life and participate in society and be successful in your career, an understanding of science and technology is critical – and to do so in an interdisciplinary way.

It’s not just chemistry or biology or software development. It’s some understanding of how all these things work and interact. How does data get used to influence what we buy, how we run our lives, how we drive our cars? Every aspect of our lives gets touched by science and technology.

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