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Once-Flourishing Economics Ph.D. Program Prepares to Die
« on: September 10, 2013, 06:51:35 PM »

Once-Flourishing Economics Ph.D. Program Prepares to Die

By Stacey Patton

For decades the Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Florida flourished. Highly regarded econometricians, like the late Henri Thiel and G.S. Maddala, taught there. Until the late 1990s, the department had been ranked among the top 20 of American public universities by prominent economics journals and associations.

Now, the 71-year-old doctoral program, housed in the Warrington College of Business Administration, is near death.

Like many public universities, the University of Florida faced significant budget cuts in the recent economic downturn. Such cuts led to reductions and eliminations of Ph.D. programs across the country, including at Florida, where the computer-science, engineering, psychology, and statistics programs have downsized. But it is rare for an economics program to be on the chopping block.

The number of economics Ph.D. programs housed in business colleges has held steady since 2008, according to a survey of 407 American institutions accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and the job market for new economics Ph.D.'s is relatively healthy. In 2010-11, almost 89 percent of all economics graduates who sought employment got jobs, and 62 percent of those landed academic positions, according to a survey of 191 economics departments by the Center for Business and Economic Research.

So what went wrong at Florida, which received up to 300 applicants for about 15 slots each year in the Ph.D. program's heyday, in the early 1990s? What does Florida's story say about the precariousness of doctoral programs elsewhere? If a program in economics isn't safe, is any? And what are the ripple effects when a thriving program slips away?

Florida announced last year that it would stop financing its economics doctoral program. Before that decision, the business-college dean gave the faculty the option to leave Warrington for the liberal-arts college, where, deans say, the Ph.D. program might have survived. The faculty voted not to move because, they say, the liberal-arts college has its own financial problems, and they were concerned about salaries, research budgets, and teaching loads.

If Florida loses all of its graduate students in the discipline, it would become the third university in the prestigious Association of American Universities without a Ph.D. offering in economics. Case Western Reserve University no longer has one, and Emory University suspended its program last year.

Since 1990 the number of professors in the department has shrunk from 38 to 11; the average age of those who remain is 63, according to the department's chairman.

Because of budget constraints, the all-male department hasn't made new hires since 2005 and has had to admit Ph.D. students on an every-other-year basis since 1995. A new cohort would have been admitted this fall under that schedule, but professors in the program decided not to admit a class without having any fellowships to offer.

Nineteen students remain in the Ph.D. program, and they will receive financial support for two more years. A few worry that graduating from a dying program could stigmatize them in the job market.

Some faculty members raise concerns about ripple effects across the university. Without a Ph.D. program in economics, some professors say, the selection of undergraduate courses in the subject will be limited. The university's stature as a whole also might take a hit, some faculty and students say, even as Florida seeks to become one of the nation's top 10 public institutions.

Fend for Yourself

The provost of the university and deans in Warrington say the program could still revive. But to continue, it will have to fend for itself.

Provost Joseph Glover says the department can still offer a Ph.D. and admit students, but those students will be responsible for paying the annual $30,000 tuition. None of the students now enrolled in the program are paying their own tuition. In past years, faculty members say, the department has admitted only a few students who paid their own way. By cutting off financial support, the administration has effectively sentenced the Ph.D. program to death, they say.

"They don't have to officially get rid of a program. They can accomplish the same goal by defunding a program," says Roger D. Blair, chair of the department. Such a move, he and other faculty members say, can allow administrators to escape the scrutiny of a faculty-senate process and campus backlash.

Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, said it is rare for economics programs to be singled out for cuts. But being housed in a business school seems to make Ph.D. programs in economics more vulnerable, he said in an e-mail, because a business dean might see the program as "an easy target for cannibalization" in lean times.

Economics remains a popular undergraduate major at Florida and across the country, but student interest doesn't always determine a program's fate. At UF the undergraduate economics major has been growing since 2011, when it had 405 students. Last semester there were 693 undergraduate majors, according to Steven M. Slutsky, graduate coordinator of the economics department.

Daniel R. LeClair, who earned a Ph.D. in economics from the program in 1992 and is executive vice president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, says it's hard to generalize about when or why economics programs are vulnerable.

Despite a robust job market and the popularity of the discipline, Mr. LeClair says, "decisions about cutting programs depend on factors like institutional priorities, the allocation of resources, and local politics."

Severe declines in financial resources prompted Florida to adopt an approach to budgeting called "responsibility-centered management" that requires individual departments and academic units to generate their own revenue. Mr. Glover, the provost, says this system, which started three years ago, creates more openness about how money is allocated and gives deans more control over their budgets.

The economics program, says John Kraft, dean of the business college, has long been troubled by operating deficits because it is undergraduate-oriented, with three times the majors in liberal arts than in the business college. As such, revenue goes to the liberal-arts college, not the business college. "They are the weakest program in business, have the weakest Ph.D. program, and have the highest gap between revenue and costs," Mr. Kraft says.

He expects to save the university $3-million each year by cutting funds for the economics Ph.D. program and reducing the faculty to six through retirement.

The program's resources are also being cut, Mr. Kraft adds, because an internal review of doctoral programs gave economics a grade of D. Its deficiencies included low program rankings and tenure-track-job placement records that failed to compare well with other business disciplines.

Professors in the economics department defend their program's record. Since the spring of 2000, the department has awarded 51 Ph.D.'s. Of those graduates, 27 have landed tenure-track positions, 16 found jobs in government, research institutions, and consulting firms, and seven went to non-tenure-track academic jobs, according to a 2011 report provided by Mr. Slutsky, the graduate coordinator. Only one graduate, who did not enter the job market because of family circumstances, has not been placed.

And, Mr. Slutsky says, the economics department supports the university in many ways, including by teaching large numbers of students in introductory courses. The tuition students pay for those courses, he says, more than covers the expense of running the department.

Students' Fears

Lindsey J. Woodworth, a fifth-year doctoral student in the department who wants to become a professor, will begin her job search in two months. She'll have to explain to hiring committees why she has a Ph.D. from a program that has fallen from prominence. "When I enrolled in this program I never thought it wouldn't exist by the time I finished," she said.

Zachary H. Cole, who is entering his third year, says he's gotten a tough lesson about the behind-the-scenes politics of academe. But it hasn't changed his goal of becoming a professor.

"My eyes are more open to the reality of academia and personalities," he says, "and how everything doesn't always run smoothly."
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