Middle Tennessee State University is again recognizing outstanding alumni who represent excellence and distinction through their professional careers, loyal support of their alma mater and service to the broader community.
Since 1960, the MTSU Alumni Association has recognized accomplished alumni with the association’s highest honor: the Distinguished Alumni Award.
This year’s recipient is William “Bill” Phillips (Class of 1976) of Wartrace, Tennessee. He is a retired U.S. Army three-star lieutenant general, with more than three decades of service to the nation, who made the successful transition to the civilian world.
The 2023 Young Alumni Achievement Award, given to a graduate age 35 or younger making a positive impact in the world, goes to Justin Hart (Class of 2011), an award-winning television producer from Memphis, Tennessee.
For the 10th consecutive year, True Blue Citations of Distinction are being awarded. This year’s honorees feature:
• Achievement in Education (MTSU faculty) — William “Bill” Crabtree (Class of 1990), of Crossville, Tennessee, a Recording Industry professor who strives in helping his students have academic and professional success.
• Achievement in Education (non-MTSU faculty) — Lauren Rhae (Class of 2009), of Nashville, Tennessee, who is an advocate and leading proponent for assuring all Tennesseans have access to the benefits of education.
• Service to Community — Christian Ketel (Class of 1999), of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a Vanderbilt University School of Nursing assistant professor who has served numerous vulnerable communities in Nashville throughout his career.
• Military Service — Retired U.S. Army Col. Rickey Smith (Class of 1978), of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, highly honored among military and civilian ranks and distinguished graduate from the No. 1-ranked ROTC program nationwide.
“The Alumni Association is excited to recognize the achievements of six talented alumni,” said Ginger Freeman, Office of Alumni Relations director. “Their accomplishments show the breadth of personal and professional success of our graduates, and we look forward to honoring and celebrating them as part of this year’s homecoming festivities.
The Alumni Association will recognize them at several events during MTSU Homecoming Friday and Saturday Sept. 22-23. The first will be the Alumni Awards ceremony at 4 p.m. Sept. 22. They also will ride in the Homecoming Parade and be recognized during the game.
Here are more details about the 2023-24 honorees:
William N. “Bill” Phillips (Class of 1976), College of Basic and Applied Sciences
The retired lieutenant general completed 38 years of service June 1, 2014. His final assignment was as the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army in the area of acquisition, logistics and technology. He also served as the commanding general, Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan; program executive officer (ammunition); and deputy program executive officer (aviation).
Phillips entered active duty in 1976 as a field artillery officer, later transitioning to Aviation Branch. He had various operational assignments and acquisition leadership positions through the years.
Phillips, who earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science, is a member of the Phillips, a member of the MTSU ROTC Hall of Fame, earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science and received an honorary doctorate from the university. He also earned three master’s degrees.
Previous awards include induction into the Defense Acquisition University Hall of Fame (2014), receiving the National Defense Industrial Association Firepower Award (2013) and he was named the Army’s Acquisition Commander of the Year (2000). He serves on the DAU Board of Visitors and as a DAU adjunct professor.
Phillips is a member of the Day & Zimmermann board of advisors, and CEO of Phillips Consulting. Previously, he served as The Boeing Co. as vice president for Army and Special Operations Forces from May 2015 to March 2021. He also served as the executive vice president for operations for OBXtek Inc.
Young Alumni Achievement Award
Justin Hart (’11), College of Media and Entertainment
Hart is an NAACP Image Award-winning TV producer who supervises original programming on the streaming platform Fox Soul. He oversees programs including Fox Soul’s Black Report, winner of the 2021 Rhonesha Bying Award from The New York Association of Black Journalists.
Hart helped launch an entertainment talk show called “Cocktails with Queens,” featuring Claudia Jordan, LisaRaye McCoy, Vivica A. Fox and Syleena Johnson. He also has worked on “Iyanla: Fix My Life,” E! News’ “Daily Pop” and “The Real.”
Hart recently developed a nonprofit organization in his hometown of Memphis called “Black Men Crowned,” which is devoted to honoring, uplifting and celebrating Black men in Memphis. He was honored with a proclamation from the state of Tennessee for his work. He was a guest on the nationally syndicated “Kelly Clarkson Show,” discussing the nonprofit. Clarkson honored him as a “Rad Human” for his continuous commitment to serving his community.
In addition to his TV industry roles, Hart was a part of Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir and received a Grammy for lending his background vocals to Kanye’s Grammy Award-winning album, “Jesus is King.”
Last spring, he was back on campus speaking to classes in the College of Media and Entertainment and created a short video for new students.
True Blue Citations of Distinction
Achievement in Education/MTSU Faculty
William “Bill” Crabtree (’90), College of Media and Entertainment
Crabtree has spent 17 years at MTSU and 30 in higher education. The recording industry professor and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Recording Arts and Technologies is known for high-quality instruction and has been a large part of the Audio Production program’s success.
Crabtree remains involved in the latest trends and issues in audio production and utilizes those trends in his courses, including multitrack recording and studio production.
“Professor Crabtree has been an integral part of our institution’s nationally celebrated program, and his expertise and passion for audio production have been invaluable in the shaping the academic and professional development of our students,” said John Merchant, Recording Industry Department chair.
Crabtree has organized several Audio Engineering Society’s Education Conferences on campus.
Crabtree works as freelance musician, producer, recording engineer and technical writer. He has engineered a wide scope of studio productions in audio production, sound design and music composition for many artists and corporate clients.
Before coming to MTSU, Crabtree was an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music, artist in resident at Emerson College, assistant chair of audio and media technology at New England Institute of Art.
Achievement in Education (Non-MTSU Faculty)
Lauren Rhae (’09), College of Education
Rhae is passionate about educational access and student success. She represents the Tennessee Board of Regents in the Correctional Education Initiative, a statewide system of postsecondary education providing high-quality education, access, and choice to those incarcerated in Tennessee.
Now pursuing her doctorate, Rhae is coordinator of special programs for Correctional Education and created a first-of-its-kind statewide system of postsecondary education in the Tennessee prison system. She also assisted in creating a sister project with county jails, the evidence-based programming project, and wrote the Correctional Education Initiative catalogue.
Since 2021, the initiative has graduated more than 150 students, with three additional associate groups graduating throughout 2023.
After graduating from MTSU, Rhae worked at MTSU as an advisor, adjunct professor and assisted in the Advisor Mastery Program. As an undergraduate, she received the Secondary Scholar Award and later earned a master’s degree.
Before moving to higher education, Rhae worked in the nonprofit sector for a year with the Workforce Investment Act. Before that, she worked as a K-12 educator.
Service to the Community
Christian Ketel (’99), College of Behavioral and Health Sciences
An assistant professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, Ketel has served vulnerable communities throughout his career. His work has primarily focused on creating and leading integrated primary care and behavioral health practices serving low-income, uninsured, homeless and non-English speaking communities.
Ketel developed and led a door-to-door COVID-19 vaccine program that has brought life-saving vaccines to more than 7,500 vulnerable Middle Tennesseans during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has provided services and developed outreach programs for many underserved communities.
Seeing the devastation left by COVID, Ketel founded the Mercury Courts Resiliency Hub with Urban Housing Solutions. This center was started in early 2020. Since then, it has distributed thousands of meals, transportation, and daily living supplies to the community.
Ketel, who has earned a master’s and doctorate degrees in nursing, has served on the Nashville Homelessness Coalition for more than 10 years and has led communitywide health service clinics. Since graduating from MTSU, he has worked at all levels of nursing and served hundreds of thousands of patients. He has collaborated with community organizations and implemented innovative programs that promote healthy lifestyles, disease prevention, and early intervention.
His dedication to ensuring the well-being of individuals and communities has been recognized by local health departments, who have commended his exceptional contributions.
Rickey Smith (’78), Jones College of Business
Smith served the nation for 41 years with the U.S. Army, with 28 of them as a field artillery officer. His service involved leadership and staff positions from platoon to department levels. Before retiring, he served as a Department of Defense coordinating officer for disaster relief and homeland security in California, Arizona and Nevada following the 9-11 attacks.
After retiring from the military, Smith was appointed as Army senior professional for capabilities development. He was later chosen as the chief of staff for the Army’s Modularity Focus Area that led to the most extensive reorganization of Army combat forces since World War II.
Smith was a Distinguished Military Graduate with a bachelor’s in business administration. His 1978 ROTC class received recognition as No. 1 in the nation. He currently serves as the president of the MTSU Military Science Alumni Chapter, representing more than 1,500 Army officers commissioned during the past 70-plus years at MTSU. He also earned two master’s degrees.
He has 19 military and other civilian decorations and awards. Military awards/decorations include the Army Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit and others. Civilian awards include Meritorious Service Presidential Rank Award, Secretary of the Army Exceptional Civilian Service Award and Department of the Army Meritorious Civilian Service Award.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)