Renowned Census Demographer’s Roots Date Back to 1972 at UT’s Boyd Center

January 30, 2023

Fifty years ago at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Gregg Robinson helped co-author 1975-2000 population projections for Tennessee. That project led to a distinguished, 40-year career at the U.S. Census Bureau and recognition as one of the country’s leading demographers.

Robinson’s love for demography began in 1972 at UT. His college roommate signed up for a class on demographic techniques, and this piqued Robinson’s interest more than the master’s degree in statistics that he was pursuing. 

Robinson made one trip to the campus library to leaf through the course textbook, and the rest is history.

“It was fascinating,” Robinson said. “Demography is a combination of applied statistics, history, geography and sociology; it’s all there together. I said, ‘I’ve gotta learn this.’”

An Oak Ridge native, he decided to audit his roommate’s class, which eventually led him to ask Donald “Chip” Hastings — the sociology professor teaching the course on demographic techniques — to be his mentor. Hastings put Robinson in touch with Dick Engels, a research associate at the Center for Business and Economic Research (renamed the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research in 2016) in UT’s College of Business Administration (now known as the Haslam College of Business).

As luck would have it, Engels had the perfect opportunity for Robinson to hone his demography skills. 


Dick Engels (left) and Robinson in 1972

“Dick Engels just happened to be working on (population) projections,” Robinson said. “I was fortunate that he said, ‘Gregg, you look interested in this. Why don’t you help me with the work on the projections?’”

Looking back, Robinson said some of the current challenges in demography are very similar to the 1970s when he was producing “Projections of Population and Labor Force, Tennessee, Regions, and Counties: 1975-2000”. Aside from understating the number of people in the Nashville area, Robinson said he and Engels didn’t do a bad job of projecting Tennessee’s population through the year 2000. “It comes down to migration,” Robinson said. “It’s difficult to estimate migration.” 

Estimates for net migration, the difference between the number of people moving in and moving out of the state, reached a record 389,000 people from 1970 to 1980. Those levels fueled the state’s 17 percent population increase during that decade, the largest in the state’s history. The second largest increase occurred from 1990 to 2000, a 16.5 percent jump.


“There’s fertility, which is pretty stable short term, but sometimes long term you miss it because projections at the Census Bureau in the 50s expected it to be higher than it was just 10-15 years later,” Robinson said. “Likewise with mortality — you have the data, you make some assumptions and usually it holds, but there can be differences like we had in the past year or two (with COVID).”

BCBER and the Tennessee State Data Center have continued this research. The most recent 2020-2070 Tennessee population projections are available on the TNSDC website.


Erin Hatfield, 865-974-6086,