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Steven Fluharty, currently senior vice provost for research, will succeed Rebecca Bushnell as School of Arts and Sciences dean on July 1.

Credit: Stuart Watson , Stuart Watson

Earlier this month, Penn announced that Steven Fluharty, who currently serves as senior vice provost for research, will succeed Rebecca Bushnell as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Fluharty sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian the other day to discuss some of his upcoming goals as he transitions into his new role at SAS.

Daily Pennsylvanian: You’ve served on Penn’s faculty for 27 years. Why did you make the decision now to apply for SAS dean?

Steven Fluharty: First of all, it’s timing. After a tremendously successful deanship, Rebecca Bushnell decided to return to the faculty to pursue her teaching and scholarship, so the opportunity was there. When I met with the search committee and had the opportunity to think about the position, I realized that Arts and Sciences is really at the heart and soul of any great university like Penn, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to step up and play a role in moving us forward.

I felt that the combination of skills I have made me well suited for the job. I spent a number of years directing the Biological Basis of Behavior program, so I not only understand undergraduate education, but have a deep passion for it — particularly undergraduate education that cuts across schools. I think that’s a real distinguishing strength of Penn.

DP: And your reaction upon learning that you’d received the position?

SF: I was absolutely thrilled. I enjoy very much what I’m doing now, but I was thrilled. It’s an outstanding opportunity for academic leadership … The stage is set for someone to really accomplish a lot in Arts and Sciences working with the president, the provost and the other deans.

DP: Looking ahead to July 1, when you’ll officially assume the SAS deanship, what is your first priority, or set of priorities, for the school?

SF: I would say that it’s so early that I’m now just beginning to learn about the opportunities that are in SAS. I suspect over the next several months that my answer to a question like that may change.

Certainly, when I look at Arts and Sciences and what’s made it great, I want to continue those things — and that starts from outstanding teaching across the continuum of students. I want to continue that, and I want to build on that. I also think that there are some real opportunities for Arts and Sciences to partner with some of the other schools in developing unique courses and unique curricula for emerging trends in areas like innovation and entrepreneurship.

Included in that, of course, is our role in online teaching efforts — particularly with Coursera. I see Arts and Sciences playing an important role in that. I also want to continue to support the departments and the outstanding centers and institutes … and I want to do what I can to help identify external funding opportunities for faculty and students to pursue their scholarship, particularly when our reliance on federal funding is at jeopardy, to say the least.

DP: Returning to your points about Penn’s online involvement, what specific role do you see SAS playing in the University’s continued expansion into the world of massive open online courses?

SF: Let me begin by saying that I really applaud President Gutmann and Provost Price for being early adopters of Coursera. I think these opportunities have the potential to be truly transformative in delivering outstanding education to a broad audience.

You can already see in the course offerings in Coursera the involvement of Arts and Sciences — Al Filreis’ course [on contemporary poetry] is very, very popular, as is Carol Muller’s course on music. Courses will continue to develop from SAS faculty, and probably in collaboration with other schools as well. The unknown here is what will this do to the ways we teach and learn on our college campuses. I like to think it will really open up exciting possibilities for online opportunities to be synergistic with what we do in our laboratories and in our classrooms. So I see a very important role for SAS, and I think you can already see that role emerging.

DP: Regarding research funding — earlier this year, you estimated to the DP that, if automatic sequestration cuts go into effect, Penn could lose $50-60 million annually in research funding. How would you see yourself working as SAS dean to continue to keep research funding levels high?

SF: First off, I have always been a very strong public advocate for the importance of federal funding of research. Much of the progress that’s been made since World War II is driven by the fact that the federal government makes investments — and that’s really what I view them as, investments in the research enterprise at colleges and universities.

I think it’s inevitable that there will be declines in the coming years — sequestration or not, the Budget Control Act anticipates capping spending, and the largest part of non-defense discretionary spending is really the federal agencies that support research. So it’s inevitable that there will be some declines.

We need to do everything we can as a university to maintain our competitive advantage, but in the face of declines we also need to be thinking of other sources that we can partner with to support our research and scholarship. Some of those are going to be foundations — the Gates Foundation, for instance, has made huge investments in certain areas, and is now targeting educational initiatives as something that’s of interest to them.

Industry is another key area. Lots of research and development that used to be done by industry in-house is now being outsourced. The outsourcing is almost certainly going to be to the laboratories at the great universities, so we need to be poised to benefit from those developments, and I think that we will.

DP: You’ll be coming to SAS once Penn’s Making History campaign is over. What new fundraising plans do you have for the school?

SF: Well, I think that even though the campaign will close, many of the goals articulated in the Penn Compact will remain. There are a lot of opportunities to continue to raise funds for scholarship support so that we can continue to provide access to a Penn undergraduate education independent of financial capability.

We certainly want to continue to integrate knowledge, and in order to integrate knowledge we need an outstanding faculty. We’ll keep raising money for endowed positions. The school has a collection of capital needs, so there’ll be a number of construction projects — either new or modernization projects. And of course, global engagement has really now taken a front seat with the recruitment of Zeke Emanuel as vice provost for global initiatives.

I think the School of Arts and Sciences can play a very important role in moving forward a global agenda. That’s another opportunity where fundraising can be used to expand our global footprint around the world.

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