Claudia Williamson understands that people might consider her a trailblazer, but she has never seen herself that way.
But as the first woman named Scott L. Probasco Jr. Distinguished Chair of Free Enterprise in the chair’s history, there is a bit of blaze in her trail. She also is the only fourth person awarded the prestigious designation in the endowed faculty appointment at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“Maybe it’s motivating to younger females that wouldn’t have considered majoring in econ. Perhaps they feel inspired,” Williamson said. “If that’s the case, that’s fantastic. But I still just never think of it in those terms because it wasn’t ever my personal experience.
“My experience has been fantastic in terms of the profession and having the support of my advisors. For example, the other members of my committee in grad school were all male, but I never thought about it because I was learning from the best. I have never felt discriminated against or that there were biases because of my gender or my being younger.”
The Probasco Chair of Free Enterprise was established in 1977 by an initial bequest from the estate of Burkett Miller and is among the largest endowed chairs of free enterprise in the nation. The Chair also directs the Center for Economic Education and a tenured faculty member in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business Department of Finance and Economics.
Truth be told, where Williamson has blazed trails has been overcoming a different obstacle: The invisible line separating the haves from the have-nots. Growing up in rural West Virginia, she recalled gazing into the distance across the Ohio River and seeing the economic disparity.
“You could see where prosperity would stop between the borders of Ohio and West Virginia. I think that planted the seed of curiosity as to trying to understand the wealth creation process,” Williamson said. “I was always very curious about the policies and barriers that can impede that process.
“When I went to college and took my first economics class, that’s when I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life studying those questions that had been bouncing around in my head as a kid growing up in a poor part of the country.”
That thirst for knowledge led her to UTC, where the mission of the Probasco Chair is to study the American free enterprise system and the conditions under which it operates most efficiently, engage in high-level scholarly research and contribute to the public knowledge and understanding of economic theory and practice. Williamson was appointed to her position in mid-2020 following a national search to replace the retiring J.R. Clark.
Before coming to UTC, Williamson spent eight years as associate professor of economics and the Drew Allen Endowed Fellow at Mississippi State University, where she created and ran its Institute for Market Studies.
“I fundraised to create that institute, which is a lot of what attracted me to UTC and the Probasco Chair,” Williamson said. “Most of the constraints that I noticed in my capacity as director of the institute, but also with other organizations, is funding. Many people are interested in these conversations around understanding market activity and competition and creating opportunities, but there’s not always the funding for those programs.
“UTC already had an endowment and the support to do the things that I was trying to initiate, in terms of creating programs that support faculty and students who want to address and understand the free market—and how that can lead to opportunities for individuals to succeed in their own life. The Probasco Chair draws in other potential donors from the community to continue supporting programming opportunities for our students and faculty.”
Supporting students hits home for Williamson—a first-generation college graduate—who admits she didn’t know anything about economics before college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Marshall University in 2004 and a Ph.D. in economics from West Virginia University in 2008.
“Once I started college and learned that economics was a major, it just fascinated me,” she said. “I just love that economics provides this toolkit and a framework for you to be able to address and have a conversation around.
“Growing up, we were probably low-to-middle class and, in some sense, we didn’t know how impoverished we were—except you could see other pockets that weren’t quite as bad. But I definitely visited family who had outhouses and didn’t have electricity and running water.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the UC Foundation 2020 Endowment Report.