Bill Haslam went to school Wednesday, listening to analysis from economics professors at Middle Tennessee State University.
What he learned wasn’t cheerful. The economy — and the state budget — are in for some challenging times. There will be improvement, he was told, but better days are not likely to come quickly.
Haslam, mayor of Knoxville and Republican candidate for governor, met on the Murfreesboro campus with university President Sidney McPhee, economists and other community leaders.
Haslam began the meeting by saying he was there to learn. He asked questions, and he took notes.
He told the group that when running for governor you do three things. You raise money, you try to sell yourself to the voters, and the part that gets crowded out is learning.
Haslam did offer his own opinion about the economic picture, however. “The economy will come back,” he said. “There are more learned minds than mine here, but in my own view it’s going to be awhile before it comes back.”
Haslam heard a lot. Albert DePrince, professor of financial economics, forecast a 1 percent revenue growth for the next year, but he said he tends to forecast lower than others might because it’s easier to adjust to circumstances when figures are higher than expectations rather than lower. DePrince said he believed the economy will turn a corner or at least flatten out this spring.
“But there is a big headwind out there,” DePrince said.
McPhee said times have changed for a college president.
“Ten years ago, when I came to this job, if anyone had told me I need to understand the economics of our society, I would have said you’re looking at the wrong person,” McPhee said. “But we have moved from the president being an academic to managing a major operation, and what happens in the economy impacts what goes on on our campus.”
McPhee noted that in eight of his 10 years as president, MTSU has had budget cuts.
“If someone thinks there are places to cut fat, I promise you we’re at the marrow,” McPhee said.
William Ford, professor and holder of the Weatherford Chair of Finance at the school, urged Haslam if he becomes governor to look at universities’ success ratio in terms of per-pupil cost and outcome. He promoted strides at MTSU on that count.
“I’m not trying to talk you into going around beating up on the University of Tennessee, but we are saying in higher education look at the per-pupil cost for what’s coming out,” Ford said. “We turn out more well-qualified people than Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis and particularly some others. I honestly believe we are the most efficient.”
The group addressed the need to match what schools offer to the kind of training workers will need in a recovery. The conversation also touched on the housing market in the community.
After the meeting, Haslam was asked what he thought of the discussion.
“I think it’s a realistic appraisal of our economy and the challenges facing the state,” he said. “When I started running, I knew the state faced serious challenges, and the problems are deeper than any of us thought a year ago, in terms of both the state’s budget and the job challenge.”
There’s a need to be patient, he said.
“I do think the economy is going to come back, but I don’t think it’s going to come rushing back in terms that are going to save the state’s budget situation or make it easy to come back in the job market,” he said.
“When this job market comes back, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be where all boats rise at the same time,” he added. “I think it’s going to be a much more differentiating economy, where those people who have better training or education are going to feel the economy come back first, and for others it will be a lot harder.”
As for Ford’s plug for MTSU’s efficiency compared to other schools, Haslam said, “Everywhere you go as a candidate for governor, everyone is proud of their institution, and they want to make certain their institution gets their share. I don’t know that that’s a bad thing.”
He was asked if he gets to do as much listening as he would like.
“No. As a candidate, you’d love to spend the majority of your time learning,” he said. “That’s the important thing that gets crowded out.”
Haslam, whose wife, Crissy, was with him throughout the day, spent much of the afternoon knocking on doors in a Rutherford County neighborhood. Several people who answered immediately said they recognized him from television. Sometimes residents told Haslam he had their votes. When a woman said she would “put you on my list” to be considered, he said, “Just remember who came and knocked on your door.”
Haslam had lunch Wednesday at the City Cafe in Murfreesboro, a popular spot for political candidates. Among the people he met as he made the rounds shaking hands was a Democrat, Bob Kolarich, a Nashville attorney with the firm Price, Hill, Kolarich.
“I was speaking with a fellow Democrat, and we were talking about which of the gubernatorial candidates we should contribute to,” Kolarich said after meeting Haslam. “My friend said, ‘Let’s face it. It’s going to be a Republican year, and the best man in the field is Mr. Haslam out of Knoxville. So give your money to him.'”
So Kolarich was asked if he will follow through.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said.