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UT's Downward Spiral

Budget cuts mean more than simple "belt-tightening" — many programs are declining in quality, and with them goes UT's academic reputation.

by David Madison

Jason Fletcher remembers the panic of early 2000. The semester had just begun and there was a run on required classes. About 50 students at the University of Tennessee packed into a class with 30 seats. They all wanted to take Econ 499, one of the few upper-level courses economics majors must pass in order to graduate.

"This is supposed to be the culmination of your education," says Fletcher, a 22-year-old, 4.0 student from Athens, Tenn.

Trying to oblige some of the econ students desperate to take Econ 499, the professor upped the class size to 33 and raffled off the additional seats. It was a desperate scene, says Fletcher, recalling the reaction of students who didn't have their names drawn from a shuffled pile of scrap paper.

"They were furious, of course," says Fletcher, who comes across as sharp, but laid back. Over the last three and a half years, he's gotten involved on campus, vice-chairing the Issues Committee, which brings guest speakers such as Dr. Ruth and Maya Angelou to UT. It's clear that Fletcher has tried to make the most of his time in Knoxville. That may be why the otherwise soft-spoken senior allows his voice to take a slight edge when he describes the downside of being an econ major.

"The department is trying to do as much as it can with what it has," says Fletcher.

All over campus, students watch as legislative budget cuts eventually become cuts in the classroom.

As former Chancellor Bill Snyder puts it, "That's what happens when you go from the macro to the micro. It's clearly documented how underfunded we are. And it just trickles down."

For the past five years, lawmakers have locked UT into a budgeting scheme that's among the country's least generous. In that time, the state's economy has grown by 25 percent, but appropriations have only increased by 2 percent. That's a meager boost compared to what's being spent on higher education in states such as Florida and Georgia.

And while the entire University of Tennessee appears malnourished, the problems facing UT's Economics Department are unique because this department actually works for the Tennessee Legislature.

Through its Center for Business and Economic Research, it provides the state's lawmakers with vital information. CBER is the authority when it comes to debating the merits of tax reform or forecasting future trends in Tennessee's economy.

But even as the Legislature places demands on CBER, it's done little to insure the health of the department in which the center is housed. Since the late 1980s, the econ department has withered by 20 percent, from 20 faculty members to 16. There have been times when professors went without basic office supplies, all the while trying to accommodate the instruction of a growing number of students.

Few of these students have shown as much promise as Fletcher. When he graduates next fall, Fletcher will likely be on his way to one of the country's top Ph.D. programs. Maybe Harvard. Maybe Berkeley.

Fletcher has never even considered UT's doctoral program, though the department would love to have him. But since around 1990, the econ department has grown accustomed to taking its second, third and fourth choices when enrolling graduate students. Until about 10 years ago, the department enjoyed a strong academic reputation. But then it began losing faculty. Some retired, while others jumped ship.

Amy Farmer is the most recent defector. She moved on to a less prestigious professorship at the University of Arkansas. Farmer says that in the early 1990s, UT's econ department was ranked 56 out of more than 250 nationwide. By comparison, Arkansas didn't even place in the top 100. But the U of A did have money, and Farmer now makes 30 percent more than she did at UT. In addition, she has an updated computer, money to travel, and plenty of office supplies.

Though Arkansas' econ department still ranks far behind Tennessee, Farmer believes that could change.

"They're trying to build something here and I have a feeling that if you do that ranking 10 years from now, it will be the exact opposite," says Farmer. "Reputation takes decades to build, but you can destroy it in five years. And that's what UT is doing."

For any university, losing a reputation means a lot more than slipping down the chart in U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings. It means being forced to do more with less: less talented grad students, less accomplished faculty, and less money for research.

And in the academic world, money follows talent. No one knows that better than Kenneth R. Walker, UT's associate vice chancellor for research.

Walker watched as the Geological Sciences Department doubled in size between 1975 and 1990. It hired quality faculty and "over the period of time, the research funds just about doubled."

But since 1990, cuts in state funding have made it difficult to maintain the same level of quality. And by not keeping this department and others up to snuff, the university has turned its back on outside funding. So even as it's trying to save funds through budget cuts, the Legislature has caused the university to lose money by making it a less attractive research institution.

Walker says President Wade Gilley now wants to double the amount of external research funding coming into the university. The push is just one component of Gilley's overall plan to place UT among the country's top 25 public universities by 2007. By consolidating the UT system and cutting administrative costs, Gilley hopes to pump more funds into academics. And for the econ department, relief can't come too soon.

Department Chairman Matt Murray says, "We are getting to a critical juncture. We're slipping into the realm of mediocrity that will take generations to crawl out of."

As department chair, Murray must attend various types of administrative meetings. When those meetings include bad news about the department's budget, he begins to feel like a bureaucratic cannibal. Given the econ department's already bare-bones budget, any cut means Murray must begin to feed on the weak and dying parts of his department.

David Mandy, a former UT econ professor who also worked with the CBER, walked away from this academic Donner Party in 1994. He moved on to the University of Missouri, never regretting his departure from the UT campus. He says he watched as the state and the university lost their "commitment to research and graduate study." But even as the state was starving UT, it was depending on CBER "for forecasts that became the basis for defining the overall rate of increase in state spending. The state couldn't do its budget without that input."

Chancellor Walker notes this "irony in the department's relationship with the Legislature."

"If you wiped out the econ department," says Walker. "You'd wipe out CBER."

State Sen. Tim Burchett, seen by many as an enemy of UT, says he just wants to wipe out wasteful spending at the university.

Just as in politics, perceptions count for a lot in academics. Burchett wants to make it clear that he supports President Gilley's recent round of belt-tightening. "He's got the university moving in the right direction," says Burchett, who affably requests that he not be quoted in a way that makes him "sound like a redneck."

Burchett says he was quoted last year by UT's student paper, The Daily Beacon, insisting the state "didn't need a Harvard by the river."

The statement was seen by many as evidence of the Legislature's miserly bias toward academia. Burchett says that's an unfortunate misconception.

Perhaps, but when it comes time to sign up for econ classes, undergraduates like Jason Fletcher still feel skimped. So many classes have vanished from the econ department's course catalog that Fletcher must hunt around campus in search of replacements. Because he plans to go to graduate school, Fletcher needs to master a set of specific math skills. At one time, UT's econ department provided this instruction. But now, Fletcher must take courses in the math department in order to complete his economics education.

From his desks in crowded classrooms and while roaming the halls in the Stokely Management Building, Fletcher says he hears a lot of "grumbling" from econ professors. Once, while riding the elevator, one professor asked, "So are you getting out of here before it all comes crumbling down?"

To this, Fletcher gave the only answer that made sense, given the department's downward slide over the last 10 years. (Department Chair Murray describes it as "the malaise of this decade.")

Without hesitation, the straight-A senior said, "Oh, yeah."

March 23, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 12
© 2000 Metro Pulse