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Social Skills

University of Tennessee considers cutting graduate social work degree at its Memphis campus.



After Misti Lira received her bachelor's degree from Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro, the nearest place for her to obtain a master's degree in social work was the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.

"Social-work students who live in northeast Arkansas got an in-state tuition waiver to go to school at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, and about 40 percent of my classmates at UT went to ASU or traveled in from Jackson, Tennessee," said Lira, who graduated from the program in 2004.

But a proposed closing of the College of Social Work at UT's Memphis campus would mean regional students traveling to UT-Nashville or UT-Knoxville for social-work degrees.

The proposal was discussed at last week's Board of Trustees meeting. The idea was tabled until the next board meeting in June, but the Memphis campus is not currently accepting social-work students for the fall 2009 semester.

"We have students in the program now, but we don't have the resources to start a new class in the fall due to the budget," said College of Social Work dean Karen Sowers.

In response to an 8 percent budget cut, Sowers submitted a proposal to the board to close the Memphis social-work program by 2010. The Memphis campus would still offer some web-based distance learning in social work, according to the proposal.

"When it comes to clinical skills, you can't get them online. You have to have face-to-face interaction with people who are trained to do complicated clinical work," said Jonathan Cole, a UT social-work alumnus who organized a Facebook group protesting the proposed cuts.

Cole worries that closing the Memphis program could be perceived as institutional racism. The local social-work program has the highest percentage of African-American students compared with programs on the Nashville and Knoxville campuses.

"Only 4 percent of students in the entire UT system are African American, and by closing the program, they risk lowering that already embarrassing statistic," Cole said.

All UT campuses have been asked to look at consolidating or cutting underused programs to meet new budget guidelines.

"UT is looking at a possible $66.5 million reduction in state appropriations for fiscal year 2009-2010," said Amy Blakely, a spokesperson for UT-Knoxville, where the social-work program is headquartered. "It's not clear yet how federal stimulus money will impact this."

Members at the board meeting last week also tabled a proposal to cut almost 800 jobs from all UT campuses. Around 200 of those jobs would affect Memphis faculty and staff. That issue also will be revisited after school officials determine how federal stimulus money will affect UT's budget.

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