“Kentucky’s dependence on coal, as a tax base and employer, has seriously undermined our ability to sustain our economy,” says Mary Tanner ’14, a government and history major from Louisville. “Exacerbating this problem is the entrenched influence of the coal industry on Kentucky politics.”
Tanner has a personal interest in the topic. Her grandfather was president of the Kentucky Coal Association for more than 15 years.
“Seeing the changes that have happened in my own lifetime in the coal industry and comparing them to his stories—something just didn’t add up,” she says. “I did some digging and came up with startling results.”
Jobs in the coal industry are at their lowest point since records began in 1927, she learned. Coal is no longer a viable employer in the commonwealth.
“I wanted to focus on a way to use education to generate opportunities for students in Kentucky’s coal counties in the future, to give them alternatives to the waning coal industry,” she says. “My grandfather was president of the KCA during some challenging times but sincerely believed in the viability of the industry and the importance of coal to the Kentucky economy. He participated in a number of debates over the years in which he vehemently defended the industry. However, my fear is that our reliance on coal could leave the state crippled in the event that it becomes untenable. My goal was not to contribute to the mounting problems that the Kentucky coal industry faces, but to help find a way for future generations to be better prepared to face those challenges.
“It was difficult for me, considering my background, to take that stance, but I think even my grandfather, who passed away my sophomore year at Centre, would have wanted this state to figure out a way to succeed, with or without coal.”
Tanner’s proposal targets education in coal-producing counties. It calls for increased funding for college prep classes, new scholarships to enable college-ready students to attend Kentucky colleges and universities, and a comprehensive vocational program at the high school level to provide alternative careers for students who do not attend college.
Her RICE presentation came out of a paper, “Preparing Kentucky for the End of Coal: Investment in Education to Bridge the Gap,” that she originally wrote for her senior seminar. She hopes eventually to publish it.
Chris Paskewich, who taught the seminar, notes the challenge Tanner faces in trying to foster a white-collar economy in places without such a legacy.
“It intelligently confronts some tough questions about Kentucky’s future beyond coal, about new jobs, and what can be done for depressed areas,” says Paskewich, an assistant professor of politics. “Her plan itself is multi-dimensional and tries to be fair to all sides. For me, the strength of her paper is that it’s written by someone who hopes to have a career in public service—and is sympathetic to the coal industry—trying to imagine how to do something practical for a situation that doesn’t have easy answers.”
Tanner has been accepted by several law schools and also has an offer to work on a political campaign once she graduates.
She will make her presentation about the future of coal on April 10 in Young 101 at 2:40 p.m. She is also a co-presenter on “Commonwealth Duel: A Product to Cover the Pivotal U.S. Senate Race in Kentucky.” Commonwealth Duel is a website designed by Tanner along with Mary Burger ’15, Sean Dunn ’16, Hayley Hoffman ’16 and Jordan Shewmaker ’14. They will make their senate race presentation at 4:45 p.m. on April 10 in Young 213.
The 2014 RICE symposium will be held April 10-11. It includes 61 oral presentations, 28 poster presentations and a musical performance. There is also an exhibition of artistic works in the AGEON Gallery of the Jones Visual Arts Center.
By Diane Johnson