Will Ph.D. in economics become extinct at UF?
Published: Saturday, November 16, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 at 9:32 p.m.
Doctoral students in economics are an endangered species at the University of Florida, and the entire Economics Department is under threat of extinction as well.
Funding for the doctoral program has been cut, and enrollment is frozen. Its aging faculty ranks have dwindled to fewer than a third of their numbers of two decades ago. And the administration plans to further thin out the ranks by half through attrition.
Professors, former graduates and even the former dean of the College of Business Administration have said it's hard to believe UF would let a once nationally recognized economics program suffer like this. The department's current chair said it could even hinder the university's climb top 10 status among its peers.
"I'm not saying we deserve special treatment, but we are getting special treatment because we are being shrunk out of existence," said Roger D. Blair, chairman of the Economics Department. "It's in the university's interest to see that doesn't happen."
As it stands, UF is about to join Case Western Reserve and Emory as the only institutions in the 62-member Association of American Universities without a doctoral program in economics, Blair said.
Blair said a strong Economics Department is vital to other colleges within the university — including law, education, transportation, sociology, political science and Latin American studies.
Economics still is attracting large numbers of undergraduates. As of fall 2013, UF had 658 economics majors — more than one-third of the 1,559 students enrolled as majors in the entire business college.
If things are allowed to continue on their present course, the department soon will not have enough faculty to offer an undergraduate major in economics, which would make UF unique among the AAU, Blair said.
"Basically, the department has been allowed to die on a vine," said David Williams, president of Florida Economics Consulting Group in Miami, who received his doctorate in economics from UF in 1986.
Williams said he doesn't see how UF can achieve top-10 status without having a highly regarded doctoral program in economics.
"We have no master's program, and now everyone is telling me we won't even have a bachelor's program before long," he said.
At its peak in 1990, the department had 38 full-time tenured professors. Today, it has 11 with an average age of 63 — down from about 15 professors two years ago. It hasn't hired a new professor since 2005, and John Kraft, dean of the Warrington College of Business Administration, said his plans call for shrinking the department to six through retirement and resignations.
Those changes are driven by budget cuts imposed by the Florida Legislature during the past five years of economic downturn in the state, and by the performance-based budgeting formula known as "responsibility-centered management," Kraft said.
The amount each college and department gets is weighted according to student enrollment, the number of graduates produced and other factors. The business college produces 2,100 degrees a year, Kraft said, and the Economics Department produces 70. By contrast, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences produces 200 economics degrees, he said.
Under the central administration's formula, the business college gets less money per credit hour than the college of liberal arts for each student enrolled in economics courses.
As a result, the Economics Department is operating at a $2.5 million annual deficit, Kraft said.
The administration proposed moving economics into the liberal arts college, where the program had a better chance to grow, Kraft said. And resource allocations are based on outcomes.
"Given their size, they didn't produce anywhere near the revenue of other departments," Kraft said. "We can't keep subsidizing things forever."
The entire college had to take reductions over the years, Kraft said. At one time, the college had more than 120 tenured faculty. It is now down to 59.
"We probably have the smallest tenure track number for a business school in the state," he said. "In the AAU (Association of American Universities), we are absolutely the smallest."
Blair said he completely understands the tough decisions Kraft has to make with resources.
"From his perspective, what he's doing for the business college makes sense," Blair said.
But the results-driven, responsibility-centered management adopted by the administration is neither fair nor accurate, he said.
"It's creating a false picture of what the Economics Department is generating for the university," Blair said.
Also, he said, the central administration imposes a "tax" on the business college, taking away revenue and distributing it to other colleges.
Moving the department won't help, Blair said, because the liberal arts college is even more strapped for cash than is the business college. "Things are not better over there."
The faculty voted against moving the department to liberal arts because the members felt they had no guarantees at the end of a three-year period in which the administration promised that salaries and support levels would go unchanged.
Liberal Arts Dean Paul D'Anieri said talks began in 2011 about transferring the Economics Department to his college. He said commitments made to individuals would be honored barring any "exceptional circumstances" such as further budget cuts.
D'Anieri says that moving the department was intended to serve two goals: preserving the doctoral program in economics and maintaining a high-quality undergraduate economics major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
This year, thanks to an increase in state funding, the liberal arts college has been able to prepare a hiring initiative that would have benefitted the Economics Department.
D'Anieri said he and Kraft worked for a year on a plan to save the doctoral program. Kraft agreed to transfer more than $4 million in recurring funds from the business college to liberal arts. Provost Joe Glover also committed money to the transfer so it wouldn't have to be diverted from other departments, D'Anieri said.
D'Anieri said he still would like to have the department in liberal arts.
"The only thing preventing the preservation of the department and the Ph.D. program was the departmental vote," D'Anieri said. "I believe that if the faculty were to vote to move to CLAS, we could put back together some version of the arrangement that the deans and provost agreed to two years ago. I would certainly welcome that."
The remaining economics professors would continue to have classes to teach if the doctoral program were to die, Blair said. Nearly 300 of the economics undergrad majors are in the liberal arts college. And economics supports many other programs in business and other colleges.
Blair said moving would provide no guarantees that the kind of support faculty receive now would continue, and they no longer would be able to get additional revenues holding endowed professorships that only the business college funds.
Another proposal recently floated by Kraft, to allow some faculty to stay in business and others to move over, doesn't solve anything either, Blair said. And it would weaken what little collective clout they still have as a united department.
For now, there is more security staying where they are, Blair said, even if change is inevitable at some point. Faculty members don't see how they can fight extinction by leaving the habitat they've staked out for so long, Blair added.
But adaptation is key to survival, said Bob Lanzillotti, business dean emeritus and professor of economics at UF. He also said it might be time for the provost to make a command decision, to sit down with Kraft, D'Anieri and Blair and work out an agreement.
"The decision comes down to what is in best interest of university," Lanzillotti said. "It's just a tragedy that this department that once had a prominent reputation would die."