In 1998 Senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson sponsored an amendment to the federal budget bill authorizing a $10 million endowment to establish the Howard Baker School of Government at UT. The amendment died in the House Education Committee. In 1999 Representative John Duncan reintroduced the bill, with bipartisan support of Tennessee House members, and Frist and Thompson sponsored it in the Senate. The original plan, as provided by Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs John Peters and announced by Senator Bill Frist, called for the school to be comprised of the Department of Political Science, the Division of Regional Planning, the Social Science Research Institute, the Howard Baker Public Lecture Series, and Manuscript Collections. A direct appropriation was not received.
In August 2001 UT received a congressionally authorized Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant to establish the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. The grant was placed in an endowment to support the center and begin its programming. The income was also allowed to be used to support a Howard Baker Chair for Public Policy. The center was launched in 2003 and housed in the James D. Hoskins Library. The mission of the center was to develop programs and promote research to further the public’s knowledge of the United States and its system of governance and to highlight the critical importance of public service.
Ground was broken for a $15 million, 53,000-square-foot facility to house the center on November 15, 2005. Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator Lamar Alexander, Governor Phil Bredesen, and Congressman John J. Duncan Jr. spoke at the event, which also celebrated Baker’s 80th birthday. The facility was dedicated October 8, 2008, in a series of events at which former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner was the keynote speaker. A bust of Senator Baker sculpted by artist Jim Gray was unveiled as part of the proceedings and is on display in the rotunda. The center initially sponsored the Baker Scholars, in conjunction with the UT Honors program, established a “learning community” as a partnership with the Department of Residence Halls and the Honors Learning Community, and published the Baker Journal of Applied Public Policy. Collections from the UT Libraries were housed within the building as the Modern Political Archives.
In 2010 Chancellor Cheek appointed a Baker Center Task Force to examine the role of the center and set long-term priorities for focus and programs. The Task Force recommended “a more focused mission, better integration into the academic life of The University, an active research program aimed at generating external funds, greater participation in The University’s teaching mission, public programs that were better focused and higher profile, a more streamlined administrative structure, and much more emphasis on development of private sources of funding.”
The report specifically recommended staff cuts, the assumption by the UT Libraries of full responsibility for the papers housed in the center, and a shift in focus to energy, environment, and global security. The Baker Journal of Applied Public Policy was called out in the report for elimination because of its modest academic quality. The recommendations of the report were accepted for implementation by the chancellor.