Middle Tennessee State University’s top leaders are expressing concerns about the University of Tennessee’s plan to acquire Martin Methodist College, 75 miles south of the Murfreesboro campus, and make it the state’s ninth public four-year undergraduate institution.
University President Sidney A. McPhee and Stephen B. Smith, chairman of MTSU’s Board of Trustees, said adding the private liberal arts college in Pulaski to the state’s higher education system would mean the southern Middle Tennessee area would be served by four nearby public universities.
In addition to MTSU, the area is also served by Tennessee State University in Nashville and Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, as well as the two-year Columbia State Community College and Motlow State Community College.
“Adding a fourth public university to an area already served by MTSU, a major comprehensive university just more than an hour from the Pulaski area, seems to me would be an unnecessary duplication of public resources,” Smith said.
“MTSU is better positioned to provide any additional higher educational services to the southern part of our Middle Tennessee region, both in terms of geography and efficiency,” he added.
UT, which operates undergraduate and graduate universities in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin, signed a non-binding letter of intent in September to begin discussions of adding Martin Methodist to its system. UT also operates a space institute in Tullahoma and a health sciences center in Memphis.
Smith and McPhee said they are reaching out to legislators and other higher-education policymakers to communicate MTSU’s existing commitment to the area and discuss how the university can further extend educational services to Pulaski, Lawrenceburg and other southern Middle Tennessee communities.
McPhee said he hopes state officials reviewing UT’s proposal focus on the potential unnecessary duplication of services and adverse impacts to already stretched state higher-ed funding rather than any political considerations.
McPhee pointed out that MTSU, along with Tennessee Tech and Columbia State, was involved in planning for the new Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center in Lawrenceburg, about 20 miles from Martin Methodist. Initial funding for the center, which will offer an array of courses from partners, came from $4.6 million in state funds, $4.5 million in local appropriations and $1.5 million in private monies.
“MTSU’s faculty, chairs, deans and administrators have identified several courses and degree programs for delivery to southern Middle Tennessee residents,” McPhee said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed, but not deterred, our desire and intent to offer courses at the center that the area wants. We certainly understand that residents in that area are seeking higher education opportunities.”
McPhee said MTSU has 1,536 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled this year from the 10 southern Middle Tennessee counties near Pulaski, as well as the seven nearby northern Alabama counties. He also said the university has 8,800 alumni in the area, which is about 8.2% of MTSU’s in-state alumni population.
“We are already serving the residents of southern Middle Tennessee,” McPhee said. “But we are always open to any additional opportunities, and additional partnerships with different universities, to meet the needs of the region.”
Under UT’s proposal, the assets of the 900-student Martin Methodist would be transferred to the state and its faculty and staff would become state employees in the UT system. Each UT campus is run by a chancellor, who reports to the system president, and each have their own academic and staff administrators.
If the state were to find the financial resources to acquire the Martin Methodist campus, Smith questioned whether it should become a full, freestanding university.
“From a business perspective, rather than adding a new university, with a full set of senior executives and separate academic programs, to the state system, it would make more sense for it to be operated as an extension of an existing entity,” said Smith.
“MTSU would be closer and more than capable of serving in such a role,” the chairman said.
— Andrew Oppmann (Andrew.Oppmann@mtsu.edu)