Inside the newly named Liz and Creighton Rhea Atrium, a large crowd celebrated Middle Tennessee State University’s crown jewel — the new Science Building, considered the catalyst for a future in scientific endeavors.
Several hundred people joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and university President Sidney A. McPhee Wednesday, Oct. 15, to christen the 257,000-square-foot facility on the south side of campus.
As what may be one of the greatest game-changers in MTSU’s history, the $147 million structure will push the university’s scientific community into fast-forward in terms of research, collaboration and individual exploration.
Six teaching lecture halls, 13 research laboratories and 36 teaching laboratories are just the start of the features for the building, which opened Aug. 25 on the first day of fall 2014 classes, more than five months ahead of schedule.
Haslam, who attended the facility’s May 2012 groundbreaking ceremony, led the collection of speakers, which also included Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, state Sen. Bill Ketron, and Tammy Melton and Kenneth Ball, representing MTSU faculty and students, respectively.
“By 2025, at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree beyond high school to find a job,” Haslam said. “Attracting and growing jobs in Tennessee is directly tied to education, and if we are not prepared to fill those jobs of the future, they will go somewhere else.
“Graduates with STEM degrees are important to our state’s ability to thrive, and the additional space to train these students — provided by this building — will help us compete in today’s global economy,” he added.
Haslam challenged MTSU to produce highly educated, STEM-trained graduates to continue to attract high-tech jobs for the Midstate workforce.
After thanking many supporters, including those in both the public and private sector, McPhee told the audience that the building was just an abstract concept, or better yet, a hope and a dream, especially after an economic jolt in the form of a recession delayed the state’s No. 1 capital project in higher education for nearly five years.
“This magnificent building would have never materialized if not for the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam, who determined early in his tenure we needed to stop talking and start constructing,” McPhee said, “as well as the support of key legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Reps. Harry Brooks and Charles Sargent, and the persistence of the Rutherford County legislative delegation and our county and city mayors, who advocated our need in every corner of the capitol until they were heard.”
McPhee told the audience the Science Building “is critical to our continuing efforts to provide Tennessee with workers equipped for the challenges of the 21st century workforce, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and math areas.”
Eighty percent of the MTSU student population will take classes in the building.
“Our new Science Building provides a place of inspiration,” McPhee said. “When you walk the halls of this building, you will note the glass walls in each of the laboratories, where you can see for yourself the students and faculty collaborating on projects and conducting cutting-edge research.”
Faculty member Tammy Melton praised her predecessors and current colleagues for their roles in landing the facility.
“Drs. (Bud) Fischer, (Greg) Van Patten, and (Lynn) Boyd deserve the highest praise for being thrust into the midst of the process, getting up to speed, and showing great patience and leadership along the way,” said Melton, referring to the respective College of Basic and Applied Sciences dean and chemistry and biology department chairs.
Donors provide critical support
McPhee emphasized the critical support secured from donors to produce the matching funds required as part of state funding of the project.
Dr. Liz Rhea was among the major private donors who attended the ceremony. She and her late husband, who died in 2004, have been longtime university donors. She gave “a generous bequest” early in the private funding process, McPhee said.
“I can’t believe it. This is just awesome,” said Rhea, an alumna of MTSU’s Class of ’55, as she visited the building for the first time. “This is more awesome and grandiose than I could imagine. Even pictures don’t do it justice.”
Students in pre-med, pre-dental or nursing — and future MTSU students — will have vast opportunities because of the technology in the facility, said Rhea, a native of Eagleville, Tennessee, where seeds were planted in elementary school to encourage her to become a physician.
“I feel so strongly,” Rhea added. “It’s got to start here in the Science Building. Here is where you’ve got to start studying and learn how to study.
“There is nothing like this to inspire you or fulfill your dream. … This will help with recruiting of better qualified students.”
Along with the Rhea Atrium, one other area of the building funded by donors includes an analytical chemistry lab named in honor of Dr. Gale Clark, who died in 2008. A gift from his estate will fund the lab he helped plan.
His wife, Alee, gave the university their first house in Murfreesboro. Proceeds from the sale of that home help fund a chemistry scholarship.
Donors McPhee recognized during the opening ceremony included:
• Bev and the late Doug Kanitz. Years before the state approved funding for the Science Building, Bev Kanitz, wife of the late engineering technology professor Doug Kanitz, made a pledge. She gave MTSU their Murfreesboro home when she decided to move to Cincinnati to be near her adult children.
• The Christy-Houston Foundation, a Murfreesboro organization led by Bob Mifflin. A $1.5 million Christy-Houston gift provided a significant boost during a six-month period when the university needed to raise $20 million. The foundation has contributed $8 million to fund MTSU’s Cason-Kennedy Nursing Building, the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia, Student Health Services, the Ann Campbell Early Learning Center (formerly known as Project Help), and School of Nursing scholarships.
• Gayle Duke, a member of the Class of 1965, and her husband, Dwayne, who are including MTSU in their estate to help future MTSU attendees study science in the new building. After graduating from the university, Gayle Duke went to work for NASA and had a hand in the U.S. landing on the moon.
• Charlotte and the late George Gardner, Clara Todd, Dr. Dan and Margaret Scott, the city of Murfreesboro, Rutherford County and the Rutherford County Industrial Board, all of whom have provided major commitments to MTSU.
MTSU President Emeritus Sam Ingram also was among those who attended the Oct. 15 ceremony.
Wiser-Patten Science Hall, which opened in 1932, and Davis Science Building, which opened in ’67, will remain open and undergo approximately $20 million in renovation and upgrades.
Meanwhile, the university learned recently that the Science Building is a LEED-certified project, achieving Silver-level certification.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a set of rating systems for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of green buildings, homes and neighborhoods. The MTSU Science Building is the 254th LEED-certified project in Tennessee and the largest core-learning higher-education facility in the state.
Along with the grand opening and the LEED recognition, the Department of Physics and Astronomy recently received recognition from the American Physical Society for improving undergraduate physics education.
Deanna Ratnikova of the American Physical Society said the MTSU department has “consciously adopted a mission to provide exceptional classroom experiences, career-focused courses and pathways and intensive research opportunities to prepare students for targeted careers.”
You can find more details about MTSU’s new Science Building at the following links:
• Get an inside look via video at MTSU research action in the new labs.
• Visit a special website devoted to the history and future of the new facility.
• Read an exclusive 32-page commemorative magazine available only at the Oct. 15 opening ceremony.
• Check out a fact sheet that crunches all the numbers of MTSU’s Science Building and also includes videos from Day One of construction.
• Enjoy a story on an MTSU senior who spoke at the ceremony.
— Randy Weiler (firstname.lastname@example.org)