A Short History of MTSU

Written by Suma M. Clark

Suma worked at MTSU for more than 30 years, serving as director of the University's Publications and Graphics Department and editor of the alumni publication The Mid-Stater, which changed in 1993 to the MTSU Magazine. She holds Bachelor of Arts ('70) and Master of Arts ('77) degrees in English from MTSU.

The First Century

Middle Tennessee State University began as Middle Tennessee State Normal School. In 1909, the Tennessee General Assembly established a general education fund to create three normal schools, one in each of the grand divisions of the state. A growing national awareness of the need for better teacher preparation influenced this action. Normal schools were expected to establish teaching standards or "norms," hence the name. Andrew L. Todd, a local attorney, played a key role in Murfreesboro's selection and in the fate of the developing institution.

The State Normal School for the Middle Division of Tennessee opened its doors on Monday, September 11, 1911. Humidity, temperature, and spirits were high as students, dignitaries, and visitors made their dusty way to the main building, one of the four structures barely completed for the opening. The site was 100 acres of farmland that had belonged to the Tom Harrison and Joe Black families.

R.L. Jones Professor R.L. Jones, president of Middle Tennessee State Normal School, presided over what apparently was an impressive but long opening ceremony. He was joined by 18 faculty members poised to teach the Academic Course (a four-year high school) and the Normal Course (a two-year normal program open to graduates of certified high schools). Both programs were intended to prepare individuals to teach. A Model Practice School encompassed the elementary grades and provided classrooms for training budding teachers. All classrooms, offices, meeting rooms, and the library were in the main building. The opening day enrollment of 125 grew to 247 by the end of the academic year.


Responding to legislative attacks and student needs, President Jones began changing the Normal School curriculum by 1917. In 1925, the name changed to Middle Tennessee State Teachers College, and the degree program changed to four years leading to a bachelor of science degree. The challenge for President Pritchett Alfred Lyon, whom the State Board of Education selected in 1922, was to find the resources to fulfill the growing needs of a college. Two new buildings that helped—separate facilities for the library and the training school—came into being just before the Great Depression.

The institution was known variously as MTSTC, State Teachers College at Murfreesboro, or STC over more than the next decade. Enrollment grew steadily except during the two world wars, and women consistently outnumbered men until the influx of veterans following WWII. With keen competition from other four-year schools for training teachers and steadily increasing pressure from students who wanted to pursue careers other than teaching, another name change came in 1943: Middle Tennessee State College. As WWII ended, President Q.M. Smith (1913), who took office in 1938, pushed for needed expansion of programs, buildings, and administrators to handle the change and growth that came during the transition to a college and the different world that emerged from the war years.

Significant program changes included establishment of a graduate school in 1951, and the first graduate students received master's degrees in 1952. Smith had proposed a ten-step building program in 1945; the fifties saw the addition of eight major structures. Enrollment grew steadily, passing 2,000 in 1956 and 5,000 in 1965. Raider football made its first bowl appearance in 1956, the same year that military science became compulsory for freshmen and sophomores.

Dr. Quill Cope Dr. Quill E. Cope became president in 1958, and the forward-moving institution continued to change. Quarters changed to semesters, and curricular changes established an art department and split science into two departments. Pilot training that began in the 1940s evolved into an aviation program. When the college celebrated its Golden Anniversary in 1961, Cope identified five images that he thought the college should strive to reflect: a beautiful campus, excellent instructional program, loyal alumni, friendly student body and faculty, and a peoples' college meeting diverse area needs. The current name—Middle Tennessee State University—became official in 1965. The decade brought also organization of departments into schools, a faculty research fund, integration, Loop Drive, a social fraternity and sorority system, the distinguished alumni recognition program, the MTSU Foundation, a national golf championship, the first computer (a Honeywell 1200), and orderly student protests.

Appointed president on August 26, 1968, Dr. M.G. Scarlett faced the challenge of bringing the newly named institution up to full university status. His top priority was launching programs, the most innovative of which was the Doctor of Arts degree to train college teachers, the first offered in the Southeast. A significant administrative change adopted a vice presidential structure. Murphy Center opened in 1970 and turned into a mecca for concerts. In 1975, the Learning Resources Center brought assistance to faculty for improving instruction through innovation and technology. Enrollment passed 10,000; students became active members of most university committees; Raiders competed for the first time in the Olympics; compulsory ROTC ended; the Honors Program began; and Concerned Faculty and Administrative Women organized and conducted a salary comparison between men and women.

In 1979, Dr. Sam H. Ingram became the sixth president. Although federal court rulings regarding integration affected programs and facilities, enrollment grew during the eighties, first hovering around 11,000, then increasing to 14,136 in 1989. In 1986, MTSU celebrated its Diamond Anniversary. Other milestones included the beginning of women's track; dedicating the Neil and Margaret Wright Music Building; starting the Women's Studies program; upsetting Kentucky in the NCAA men's basketball tournament; and establishing seven Chairs of Excellence and three Centers of Excellence.

Dr. Wallace S. Prescott was named interim president in January 1990. He brought to the campus invaluable experience combined with vision. Coming out of retirement to lead MTSU, the former civil engineer persisted in the quest for needed classroom and office space. Under Prescott's leadership, the University launched the facilities master plan still in use at the Centennial.

February 1, 1991, was Dr. James E. Walker's first day in the President's Office. Growth—in enrollment, construction, staff, programs, and giving—became the hallmark of the nineties. MTSU's six schools became colleges; the University connected to the Internet and installed the first voice mail system; the $20 million Miller bequest set a record for the largest gift ever received by a public college or university in Tennessee; the University Honors College became the first at a state university in Tennessee; and MTSU celebrated its 85th anniversary by breaking ground for a new library. The Foundation launched a successful $30 million campaign in 1997.

Dr. Raymond Eugene (Gene) Smith (1957) became the second alumnus to serve as president when the Tennessee Board of Regents named him interim in 2000. He liked to point out that one can indeed go from being a water boy for the football team to being president of the whole institution. He worked to maintain momentum as the University entered the twenty-first century with the state in something of a precarious financial situation.

Selected in August 2001, Dr. Sidney A. McPhee is MTSU's tenth president. Fall started on an exciting note with a Raider upset of Southeastern Conference member Vanderbilt in their first football game in more than 40 years. McPhee's years have been guided by three Academic Master Plan goals that encompass a commitment to academic quality, student-centered learning, and innovative partnerships. Highlights include MTSU's first online degree programs and first Ph.D.s; the inception of a summer reading program culminating with Convocation; completion of the Tennessee Miller Coliseum and Horse Science Center; construction of the Wood-Stegall Center; matching the Paul and Lee Martin funding challenge, leading to the Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building; opening of the Emmett and Rose Kennon Sports Hall of Fame; creation of a unique Naked Eye Observatory; dedication of a veterans memorial; an increased emphasis on international studies that included establishment of a Confucius Institute; and bowl invitations three times in five years.

Beginning as a normal school with 125 students, MTSU now has the largest undergraduate enrollment in the state, and its programs include some that are nationally recognized. The Centennial celebration coincides with state budgetary challenges that require a rethinking and repositioning that will affect the entire University community. Given the institution's propensity for surviving and flourishing even though conditions are far from optimum, it is expected that Middle Tennessee State University's second one hundred years will bring yet undreamed of accomplishments.