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Nobel winner and MTSU alumnus James M. Buchanan dies

Nobel Prize-winning economist and MTSU alumnus Dr. James M. Buchanan died Wednesday morning in Blacksburg, Va., family members said. He was 93.

Buchanan, a 1940 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and a Rutherford County, Tenn., native, received the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his leadership in developing the public choice theory of economics.

Of receiving the Nobel award, Buchanan once wrote: “If Jim Buchanan can get a Nobel Prize, anyone can. Recognition and acceptance of this simple truth are very important.”

Buchanan is the only MTSU alumnus so far to win the honor.

Nobel economics laureate and MTSU alumnus Dr. James Buchanan speaks to MTSU graduates at the May 2000 commencement ceremony. Buchanan, a Rutherford County native, died Wednesday, Jan. 9, in Virginia. He was 93. (MTSU file photo)

“The university mourns the loss of Dr. James Buchanan, whose legacy as a scholar in economics, Nobel laureate and educator will live on as the namesake of our most prestigious academic honor, the Buchanan Fellowship,” said MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee.

“Dr. Buchanan, born in rural Rutherford County, always treasured his Tennessee roots and was a proud alumnus of our university. His passion for economic theory was ignited by a professor on our campus, and his generosity to MTSU has allowed many more students to find their calling.

“His continued involvement and connection to this University brought honor to our institution. We are forever in his debt.”

A stridently independent thinker, Buchanan earned the Nobel for “his development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making.” Within the economics discipline, his contribution is known as the field of Public Choice, which brings the tools of economic analysis to the study of public decision making.

His book, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, which he co-authored with Gordon Tullock, is considered a classic work on public choice theory.

After he received the Nobel Prize, Buchanan continued to write and lecture on his interests around the world into his 94th year. He lived in Blacksburg, Va., and was married to the late Anne Bakke Buchanan, who died in 2005.

Nobel economics laureate Dr. James M. Buchanan, third from right, joins the celebration of the inaugural class of the Buchanan Fellows in this October 2007 file photo. The new University Honors College program for 20 incoming freshmen includes four years’™ paid tuition, special seminars and academic opportunities and is the highest award given to entering freshmen at MTSU. Joining Dr. Buchanan, an MTSU alumnus, in cutting the cakes are MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, center, and, from left, Buchanan Fellows Danielle Rutherford, Nellery Marty, Jordan Cox and Colby DeHart; Jeff Whorley, Honors College Board of Visitors chairman and Dr. Buchanan’s nephew; Buchanan Fellow Elizabeth Henegar; Dr. Buchanan’s sister, Liz Bradley; and Buchanan Fellows Aaron Scherer, Michelle Ebel, Chelsea Curtis, Jessica Taylor, Robert Smith, Jonathan Siler and Taffeta O’Neal. (MTSU file photo by Jack Ross)

Buchanan spent much of his academic career in Virginia with tenures at the University of Virginia; Virginia Tech, where he established the Center for Study of Public Choice; and George Mason University, to which he and the Center for Study of Public Choice moved in 1983 and from which he retired in 2007. He also taught at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Florida State University and UCLA.

In 1997, MTSU established the Buchanan Scholarship in his honor to recognize top students, known initially as Buchanan Scholars. When visiting MTSU in 1997 to address the first group of Buchanan Scholars, he shared these words of encouragement:

“Economics, the discipline that was to become my scientific home, requires expository writing skills, logical structures of analysis, and a grounding in ultimate reality. And political economy, the branch of moral philosophy from which economics springs, requires philosophical coherence. I came away from Middle Tennessee with all of these …”

In 2006, McPhee established the Buchanan Fellowship program in the University Honors College intended to attract top scholars from across the state and country. Only 20 applicants each year are selected as Buchanan Fellows, the highest academic award given to an entering MTSU student.

Rutherford County author and MTSU emeritus professor in economics Reuben Kyle will soon release a book, From Nashboro to the Nobel Prize: The Buchanans of Tennessee, with proceeds going to the Buchanan Fellows program.

The grandson of Tennessee Gov. John P. Buchanan, James M. Buchanan grew up on a Depression-era farm in the Gum community of Rutherford County. He attended Buchanan School, which was named such because it was built on land once part of the Buchanan family farm.

In his book of personal essays, Better Than Plowing, the down-to-earth Buchanan pointed out that his family’s humble roots instilled within him a strong work ethic — he earned money for college books and fees by milking cows — that set the stage for his distinguished career.

Dr. James M. Buchanan, left, accepts the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. (photo submitted)

Buchanan graduated in 1940 from what was then Middle Tennessee State Teachers College with majors in mathematics, English literature and social science. He went on to a graduate fellowship at UT-K and an economics fellowship at Columbia University.

Duty to country called during World War II, and Buchanan entered officer training in the U.S. Navy ROTC program, eventually serving on the staff of Adm. Chester Nimitz in Hawaii.

Following his Naval service in the Pacific, Buchanan earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago.

The prolific scholar and author would serve later as the advisory general director of the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he also served as a distinguished professor emeritus.

Speaking at the MTSU spring commencement in May 2000, Buchanan challenged graduates to question the day’s political leadership, which seemed to lack the Middle Tennessee values he held so dear.

“An open politics makes no distinction between the Ivy Leagues and the bush leagues when it comes to telling us what we want our government to do. The people, yes, but all the people, treated as equals, and not some more equal than others. Along with this attitude, there is an abiding mistrust in allowing others, no matter whom, to control too many elements of our lives.”

During Buchanan’s visit to campus in 2000, then-MTSU President James Walker made Buchanan the third recipient of the MTSU President’s Award, which recognizes those who have distinguished themselves through exemplary service to MTSU; extraordinary contributions to education, the community or society; or remarkable professional achievement.

Buchanan is survived by two sisters, Lila Graue of Fayetteville, Ark., and Elizabeth Bradley of Pearland, Texas, as well as three nephews: Doug Graue, Jim Whorley and Jeff Whorley.

An announcement regarding memorial services is pending.

You can listen to a brief audio clip of Buchanan, along with two other MTSU-affiliated Nobel winners, at http://mtsu.edu/news/podcast/2012/MIAM_23.mp3.

— Jimmy Hart (jimmy.hart@mtsu.edu)

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