Thomas J. Sharbaugh, Ballot Position No. 4
Read Sharbaugh’s official bio and position statement here.
Answers to Questions
1. In view of sharply declining state appropriations, what steps should Penn State be taking to secure its financial future?
There are a number of actions that would help secure our financial future. First, although Pennsylvania funding will not return to prior levels in the short term, the University should nevertheless rally its huge Pennsylvania alumni base to lobby Pennsylvania legislators. Most alumni do not know the small relative size of Pennsylvania funding, nor that it is at its lowest level since the 1980s. I would use technology to reduce operating costs, as businesses have been forced to do. Greater use of online classes is an important place to start. This is being done not only in the “for-profit” universities but also in highly respected private schools like Stanford. We could also use technology to collaborate with other schools to offer more efficiently courses for which there is insufficient demand to justify the required resources at individual schools. Moreover, we could employ technology to combine data processing, recordkeeping and other functions with those of other universities. I would not freeze salaries because they have been frozen in two of the last three years. On the revenue side, I would maximize our opportunities to license inventions and consider charging fees for advisory services to the extent that doing so would not conflict with our Outreach mission. I would give the Development Office sufficient staffing to grow the endowment to a level comparable to our peer schools. I would also consider privatizing certain non-core campus operations in order to increase the endowment with the proceeds.
2. The rising cost of tuition nationally is making college less affordable for many students. Outline the steps you believe Penn State should be taking to address the issue.
In my view, Penn State’s position as the most expensive US public university is its biggest crisis. We should not abandon our original mission of educating the “industrial classes,” nor strive to become an elite private institution. Our cost is even more of a problem at most of the Commonwealth Campuses because commuter students know that they can start at a community college at one-third the tuition and then transfer to Penn State for their last two years. I have mentioned various cost-saving and revenue-generating measures in response to the first question. The most important of these from a tuition standpoint is the use of more online learning. Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen and others suggest that online learning is a threat to the public universities because the “for-profit” universities will be able to educate many more students at a much lower cost. Even highly respected Stanford had 35,000 students take a computer science course online vs. 175 classroom students in the same course. Penn State can be disrupted or be the disruptor. We could reduce costs by using online learning to serve more students per class. We could also generate revenue by offering to smaller colleges and universities the opportunity to have their students attend online more specialized science, business and engineering courses that the smaller schools do not offer. In addition, we could expand the course and degree offerings at the Commonwealth Campuses to increase enrollment by the more cost-conscious students.
3. What form should Penn State’s land-grant mission take in the 21st century?
Penn State should embrace rather than de-emphasize its land grant mission in the 21st Century. Although we no longer have a predominantly agrarian economy, the three reasons for the land grant universities are just as important today: “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes,” research in the public interest and community outreach. The federal and state governments in the 1800s were willing to fund new public universities because they believed that having an educated population was important to economic growth. Penn State must demonstrate to the citizenry of Pennsylvania that it provides the same economic justification for its funding today. This will be difficult if Penn State prices itself out of the market for the lower and middle income students and looks more like a private university. As Pennsylvania and its nearby states have suffered severe job losses, Penn State should expand its mission to educate not only the sons and daughters of the working class, but also the working class itself. With the ability to combine online classes and traditional classroom teaching at its many Campuses, Penn State is uniquely positioned to provide value to Pennsylvanians who need re-education as well as education. Pennsylvania residents would likewise appreciate Penn State more if it extended its community outreach services more into the urban areas. Penn State provides many community services that lack visibility in the urban areas. In my opinion, this is not the time to paint over the land-grant frescoes in the upper lobby of Old Main.