JULY 27: Update from President McPhee on COVID-19, Fall semester

Dear Campus Community:

With the beginning of our fall semester exactly one month away, I find myself experiencing very mixed emotions. The usual excitement that this season brings, as we welcome our students back and begin a new year of learning and exploration, has been tempered with concern and caution, as we deal with the impact of this international pandemic. Our normal routines have been altered and we begin each day recognizing that there are a number of unknowns that we must be prepared to address. 

As we monitor infection rates on campus and in our local community infection rates, I share the concern that the numbers are not going in the right direction. I understand this apprehension and anxiety among some of our employees and students, which I am fully sensitive to. But, I am also confident and comforted with the knowledge that we continue to take the steps to proactively address the needs and concerns of our campus in addressing this pandemic. The success of our mitigation efforts will depend, in large part, on our citizens following CDC public health guidelines, including use of face masks, washing hands and social distancing. I want to assure you that we are prepared to change, adjust and/or pivot our reopening plans should the situation require it.

Essential to that effort will be my continued commitment to frequent and transparent communications to our entire University family. Through weekly updates, community town halls, and targeted communications when needed, it is my intent to keep you fully informed and abreast of our current plans and mitigation strategies. Our executive leadership team is diligently working to fulfill our commitment to delivering the highest quality education to our students, while assuring the well-being of our community. 

With that in mind, I would call your attention to the following: 


  • We have been working over the summer to prepare our University for the safest return possible for our students, faculty and staff. As such, we have made significant changes and decisions to our operations, structure and processes to accommodate that return. You can read a summary of those decisions here
  • We monitor and follow information every day from local, state and national health agencies regarding the activity of the virus. As I have often said, the virus drives the decisions we make and we must recognize that our plans, including our goal of fully reopening, has the potential for change. You can read a summary of the indicators we track daily here to help us determine our reopening plans. 
  • Please know that movement in one or more indicators will not necessarily trigger a change in our plans, as such a decision would be made upon the whole, rather than an individual statistic. However, while we remain committed to resuming on-campus operations for the fall term, we will to move to an entirely remote and online instruction if the COVID-19 outbreak requires it. 
  • We hope students, faculty and staff will work together in taking every possible step to help mitigate the spread of the virus on our campus and in the community.
  • We appreciate the recent decision by Rutherford County officials to mandate the use of face makes and coveringsand hope that greater community awareness and participation in safe health practices will have a positive effect upon our area’s COVID-19 statistics. As you know, MTSU requires the wearing of face masks or coverings in all campus buildings


  • Starting this week, the University’s webpage for COVID-19 information will include a weekly count, updated each Friday, on the number of COVID-19 active cases among students and employees, based upon information reported to Student Health Services. 
  • Students, faculty and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who have sought COVID-19 testing should fill out this online form to keep our Student Health Services updated on our community’s status.
  • Most COVID-19 questions can be answered by reviewing the Return to Work plan and other informational pieces (i.e. Stay on Course; MTSU COVID-19 Task Force, Health Resources, etc.) posted on the MTSU Coronavirus website (mtsu.edu/coronavirus).
  • Rick Chapman, our director of Student Health Services, has been identified as the MTSU point of contact for COVID-19 related questions. In the coming days, we will announce a dedicated phone number and e-mail address to which you may direct COVID-19 related questions not addressed in our other resource information. This will allow the current Student Health Services phone number and e-mail address to continue to serve the medical needs of our students.


I am pleased to share with you an update and some good news enrollment for fall 2020.  

As you have probably read elsewhere, colleges and universities across the country are bracing for significant enrollment declines in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Tennessee is certainly no exception, as students and parents consider issues of safety, value, and the remarkable uncertainties created by COVID-19, and wonder if a gap year or other alternative to a four-year college experience might not make sense.

Due to the exceptional work of our faculty and staff, MTSU appears to be well positioned to weather this storm. Although it is too early to know with certainty what our final enrollment numbers will be, we are seeing indicators that we may successfully hold our own with a steady in overall fall enrollment. Predictably, new freshmen and new transfer numbers are down; it’s not surprising that our newest students have a high degree of nervousness about how COVID might impact their first year experience. We are also waiting to see how our dual enrollment numbers come in; while they are currently down quite a bit, high schools are still finalizing their plans for re-opening, and we expect further developments in dual enrollment numbers as those plans start to solidify.

However, retention projections for last year’s class of first time and new transfer students are at their highest level in more than a decade! In fact, they are at the highest level since we began tracking such data in 2007. We made significant investments in academic advising and other retention efforts some years ago, and the timing couldn’t be better for us to see impressive payoff on those initiatives.  

Similarly, our attention to graduate education is showing results in pronounced increases in enrollments of new graduate students. Unbelievably, at this point, enrollments of new graduate students are actually double what they were last year at this time: We have more than 1,000 new graduate students currently enrolled for the fall term, as opposed to 492 at this same point last summer. Many thanks to Dr. David Butler, our vice provost for research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies, and the new associate dean, Dr. Dawn McCormick, for their leadership in this area.

Overall, as of today, it appears that we may be on course to remain even with our full-time enrollment of last year. Avoiding a significant enrollment decline would be an impressive accomplishment in light of the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus on colleges and universities across the country. My thanks go out to everyone who is working so hard to keep us on track for a successful fall semester. 


  • The University will honor its student veterans graduating in the Summer instructional term with a virtual and televised Veterans Stole Ceremony at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5. The event will be livestreamed on MTSU’s Facebook page. 
  • A virtual and televised Commencement Exercise will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 8. for students graduating at the conclusion of the Summer semester.  The event will be livestreamed on MTSU’s main Facebook page and our YouTube channel
  • Both events will also be televised on the University’s educational resource TV channel, which airs on Comcast xfinity channels 9 and 1096, and channel 9.1 on the MTSU campus. The channel is also available on the MTSU website, as well as Roku, AT&T U-verse and Apple TV; go to its website for more details. 

We are again preparing True Blue Graduation Boxes for our honorees; go here for information on receiving the boxes. I hope our graduates, as well as their families and friends, will send us photos of our students in their regalia for our social media platforms. You can send photos to pix@mtsu.edu or just tag us (@mtsu) on Instagram. 

Please continue to be safe and know that I appreciate your efforts and hard work as we conclude the Summer session and prepare for the Fall semester. 

Sidney A. McPhee