By Robert Shaffer, Ph.D.
Professor of History, Shippensburg University
Tom Wolf’s campaign commercials portray him as “both folksy and professorial,” says the Harrisburg Patriot-News in its editorial urging readers to vote for the York County business owner for governor in the Democratic Party primary. It’s an apt description, as I saw first-hand when I met Wolf in mid-April as part of APSCUF’s Committee for Action through Politics (CAP) statewide endorsement meeting. I don’t believe anyone came to that meeting expecting that APSCUF would endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, as our focus had been on helping to elect “ABC” – Anybody But Corbett. Our priority is to get rid of the current governor, who cut PASSHE’s budget 18 percent in 2011 (his original proposal was for a nearly 50 percent cut), and whose “level funding” since have institutionalized these cuts. So just about anyone would look better than Corbett.
But Wolf, who has a Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT, clearly wanted to do more at our meeting than just differentiate himself from Corbett – a rather low bar. He wanted to impress the 15 PASSHE professors seated around the conference table – and he did. Wolf spoke about his experience as a professor for a few years just out of graduate school – a savvy move in a roomful of academics. But it was when he congratulated APSCUF for negotiating a contract that at least guarantees adjuncts a decent wage for their hard work that eyebrows were raised around the room. We were astonished, really, that Wolf not only knew that detail of our contract, but understood its significance.
Wolf dissented forcefully from the governor’s proposal to eviscerate public employee pensions. He argued that much of the “crisis” is due to short-term circumstances – the low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve Board – and that as interest rates rise the “deficits” we hear so much about will shrink. Moreover, Wolf once again astonished those present by stating that at his cabinet-making company workers have a defined benefit pension with no employee contributions.
There were some positions on education and other issues in Wolf’s 20+ briefing paper about which we had questions, or even disagreed. For example, I criticized what appeared to be his blanket endorsement of so-called “dual enrollment” programs, and I described instances in which students at Shippensburg who received college credit for courses they took in high school under the “supervision” of a community college had clearly not done satisfactory college-level work. Wolf took my comments in stride, responding that he would solicit wide comments and advice about his policies as governor and that many items in his platform are merely the beginnings points for more intensive conversations. One could dismiss that response as the blandishments of a smooth-talking politician who wants to be all things to all people (after all, Wolf has also served as chair of the board of York College, which, he said, saw Shippensburg as its major competitor). But Wolf convinced me, despite my having raised the criticism in the first place, that he is sincere in wanting to learn more and that he is willing to revise his positions based on reasoned argument.
Indeed, Wolf clearly showed in our interview that he likes to talk about ideas and their consequences. The professorial aspect of his demeanor was not so much one of lecturing but enjoying the give-and-take of what became an hour-long seminar in public policy. (His campaign staff had earlier said that he could give us only 30 minutes, but he arrived early and stayed late. Wolf followed the “seminar” by shaking hands once again with everyone present, and a bit of small talk about each of our universities. So maybe the metaphor would be that Wolf was conducting a seminar at which he really wanted to get good “student evaluations” — and he did.)
I am still for “ABC,” even as the intra-Democratic mud-slinging has taken off these past few weeks. All of the Democratic candidates have good positions on public education, and all, including Wolf, are generally liberal on so-called “social issues.” Wolf, who has also served on the board of the labor-backed Keystone Research Center, did win over the APSCUF members at the endorsement meeting that he could be most effective in defeating Corbett and in advancing our objectives in public higher education.
Wolf certainly convinced me that he understands the importance of the work we do as professors, that he recognizes the importance of PASSHE universities in Pennsylvania higher education, and that as governor he will listen to the voices of APSCUF and others who work in education. I encourage my colleagues at Shippensburg and APSCUF to vote for Tom Wolf in the Democratic Party primary election on Tuesday, May 20.