Higher Education

Historians studying the status of higher education in Tennessee in the closing years of the twentieth century can be more optimistic about the future than Lucius Salisbury Merriam was when his study Higher Education in Tennessee was published in 1893. Merriam examined seven universities, fourteen colleges, twenty women's colleges, five colleges for blacks, and the Winchester Normal, a privately owned institution. What he found was the perpetuation of problems that had plagued Tennessee higher education from its frontier origins: the establishment of private academies and colleges by Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist ministers who supplemented their meager salaries by providing education for the children of the pioneers.

These colleges generally enrolled more students in their preparatory schools than in the “college departments.” Even then, Merriam wrote, the standards were low. Alumni acquired master of arts degrees by maintaining a reputation for good moral character and attending to their businesses for several years, after which time, they paid five-dollar diploma fees and wrote short papers on any subject to fulfill the degree requirements. “Academic honors have become a cheap commodity in Tennessee,” Merriam wrote; “[S]o-called 'colleges' and 'universities' . . . do not possess the ghost of college equipment either material or intellectual.” In perusing the list of faculty members in the catalogues of preparatory schools and church-sponsored colleges, one may wonder just how many of the A.M.s were earned. Many popular, articulate, more or less literate, and ambitious ministers received honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees.

Merriam considered Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Nashville with Peabody Normal, the University of the South, and Cumberland University as the best the state could offer. Fisk University, he wrote, was “the highest grade purely collegiate institution for negroes in the world.”

The University of Nashville evolved from nonsectarian and independent Davidson Academy (1785), which had become Cumberland College (1806), to qualify for federal funds made available through government land sales. The trustees employed Philip Lindsley, D.D., from the College of New Jersey, and changed the name to the University of Nashville in 1826. Hard times, a cholera epidemic, and declining enrollment resulted in the closing of the literary department in 1850. On the eve of his resignation in 1850, Lindsley worked with Nashville physicians to establish a department of medicine, actually a proprietary medical school. The medical school remained open during the Civil War; after the war, the school shared its facilities with the normal school, Peabody Normal, established with support from the George Peabody Fund. In 1903 trustees of the Peabody board voted to fund the construction of the George Peabody College for Teachers in the South; they selected a site for the new campus across the street from Vanderbilt. Like other proprietary medical schools of the late nineteenth century, the medical school of the University of Nashville could not meet standards set by the American Medical Society and passed into history.

The University of Tennessee evolved from Blount College, chartered by the territorial legislature in 1794; rechartered in 1807, it became East Tennessee College and qualified to receive federal land grants. In 1840 it received university status. After the Civil War, trustees and administrators reorganized curricula and aims with the goal of achieving recognition as the state university. The university established a school of agriculture with funds made available under the Morrill Act of 1862, developed a graduate school of arts and sciences, and expanded the undergraduate programs. In March 1879 ETU became the University of Tennessee by an act of the state legislature, although the legislature did not appropriate funds for its operation until 1903.

In the 1850s Bishops James Otey, Leonidas Polk, and other Episcopal leaders in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas initiated the establishment of the University of the South with a school of liberal arts, a theological seminary, and a preparatory school. They planned to maintain academic standards comparable to the best in the North and Europe. The founders began fund-raising activities for $500,000 to develop a campus at the southern tip of the Cumberland Plateau. The Civil War, however, began before construction was completed and students enrolled. During the conflict the endowment funds were lost, and the buildings were burned. When peace returned, Bishop Charles Todd Quintard took the lead in resurrecting the plans; he raised 2,500 pounds in England. In 1868 Quintard and the trustees chose a faculty described as “formidable,” and opened the doors to students. Since then, the University of the South has raised endowments and survived wars and depressions to earn an enviable reputation in the liberal arts.

Cumberland College was established in 1826 by the general assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Princeton, Kentucky. In 1842, with few students and inadequate funding, church leaders decided to move the school to Tennessee; they chose Lebanon after the town's citizens offered them a new $10,000 building. The name was changed to Cumberland University, and the curricula eventually included engineering, theology, arts, law, and business; a medical branch was located in Memphis. The law department included Judge Abraham Caruthers, Robert L. Caruthers, Nathan Green, and others with established reputations and attracted students from southern and western states. In 1858 the law school, with 188 students, claimed the largest enrollment in the nation; Harvard was second with 146. By 1893 over 1,400 lawyers had earned degrees at Cumberland, including several U.S. senators and representatives, state governors, judges in state and federal courts, and state legislators in the southern and western states.

With the establishment of peace in 1865, John Ogden, superintendent of education for the Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee, Erastus M. Cravath, former army chaplain and field secretary of the American Missionary Association (AMA), and Edward P. Smith, district secretary of the AMA, established a “beginners” school for freedmen in Nashville; they also planned to develop a college for Negroes with AMA and Freedmen's Aid Committee funds. Fisk School was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk, a friend and patron of the educational endeavor, who raised funds for buildings and programs; the school opened in January 1866. Ogden served as principal and developed programs to train students to teach fundamentals to recently freed blacks and their children. Two years after its opening, the school became Fisk University. Students enrolled in departments of theology and commerce as well as in the normal and model training schools. By 1871 the college of liberal arts was accepting students. Compared to prevailing standards, the faculty was well trained, though salaries remained low. The Freedmen's Bureau, the AMA, the Peabody Fund, and individual donors provided the operating funds, but it was the Jubilee Singers who, through their tours at home and abroad, saved Fisk from insolvency in the 1870s. Adam J. Spence headed the school after John Ogden's resignation in 1870, but hard times and overwork led to his resignation five years later. From 1875 to 1900 Erastus M. Cravath and his colleagues improved facilities, developed the faculty, and raised academic standards. While Booker T. Washington and others stressed trade school education, Cravath made some concessions, but continued to emphasize the liberal arts. In 1900, when Cravath died, Fisk had a national reputation for excellence.

Following the Civil War, Bishop Holland N. McTyeire and other prominent Southern Methodists renewed their efforts to establish a first-class university in Nashville. In 1873 the newly selected board of trustees launched a campaign to raise a $500,000 endowment, but fell far short of the goal. While visiting his cousin, Cornelius Vanderbilt's second wife, McTyeire found her husband, the “Commodore,” interested in helping to heal the wounds of war. The plan McTyeire presented to the trustees provided $200,000 for land, buildings, books, equipment, and faculty, and a $300,000 endowment. As president of the board, McTyeire would exercise control over all phases of construction, faculty selection, and administration. The board accepted the money and the conditions and changed the name to Vanderbilt University.

McTyeire persuaded Langdon C. Garland, his mentor, longtime friend, and professor of physics at the University of Mississippi, to join him as chancellor. Under McTyeire's leadership, Garland's duties were more like those of a dean rather than a chancellor. McTyeire and Garland envisioned a university equal to the leading eastern universities. In the fall of 1875, 307 students enrolled in the departments of Bible, academics, law, and medicine.

McTyeire soon became dissatisfied with his original faculty members; he fired several and reduced the salaries of others. By 1886 only Garland and Professor James M. Safford remained of the original faculty. McTyeire found replacements among the recent graduates of the doctoral programs of eastern and German universities. McTyeire died in 1889 before he could achieve his goal of bringing Vanderbilt up to the standards of Johns Hopkins, Yale, or Harvard, but at the time of his death, it enjoyed an outstanding reputation among southern universities and colleges. Chancellor Garland led the university until his retirement in 1893 at the age of eighty-three. Before he left, he nominated James H. Kirkland (Ph.D., Leipzig), one of the recent replacements, to succeed him. The trustees concurred. Kirkland served as chancellor for the next forty-four years.

In 1903 outspoken advocates of public schools, Professor P. P. Claxton, Sidney G. Gilbreath, Seymour A. Mynders, R. L. Jones, and other prominent educators launched a six-year campaign that culminated with the passage of the Education Bill of 1909. The measure provided for longer school terms, consolidated schools, imposed higher qualifications for teachers, provided direct appropriations for the University of Tennessee, and stipulated that four normal schools (three for whites and one for blacks) be established in several locations across the state.

In the fall of 1911 Middle Tennessee State Normal School (Murfreesboro) and East Tennessee State Normal School (Johnson City) enrolled their first students. West Tennessee State Normal School (Memphis) and Tennessee State Agriculture and Industrial School (Nashville) opened in 1912. Their curricula included four years of high school subjects, freshman and sophomore level courses in the liberal arts, and courses in teaching methods, public health, and psychology. In 1915 the legislature approved Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (Cookeville) to join the normals under the direction of the state board of education. Although established as a technical school, TPI for many years emphasized teacher education more than engineering or sciences. In 1918 the normals dropped the first two years of high school and added the junior year of college work and additional courses in education. Five years later, after the addition of senior level courses, the schools dropped “normal” from their titles and qualified as “Teachers Colleges.” In the mid-1920s, when Southwestern Presbyterian University moved to Memphis, Clarksville citizens persuaded legislators and the state board of education to buy the campus and buildings. In September 1929 Austin Peay Normal enrolled its first students.

About the same time that Clarksvillians were pressuring the legislature to acquire a campus, their neighbors in Martin (Weakley County) persuaded the lawmakers to buy the campus of Hall-Moody Institute, which became the campus of the University of Tennessee Junior College. In 1951 it became a four-year college and the University of Tennessee at Martin. In 1969 the University of Tennessee added another satellite campus when it acquired the University of Chattanooga, changing its name to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The school had been established by Northern Methodists as Chattanooga University in 1872. The name was changed to U. S. Grant University in 1889, before becoming the University of Chattanooga in 1904. As the University of Tennessee acquired off-campus centers, boosters claimed that the university's campus extended from Bristol to Memphis, and some Chattanoogans thought their city deserved a branch. Knowing they could not compete with UT, trustees of the University of Chattanooga entered into negotiations that resulted in President Andrew Holt's announcement that the school would become the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on July 1, 1969.

In the 1930s many students found the lower fees of the teachers' colleges and the acceptance of transfer credits from these institutions by professional and graduate schools to be powerful incentives to enroll at the state schools. The six schools survived the depression years on annual appropriations of $56,000 and student fees; the National Youth Administration provided funds to pay student helpers. In 1941 the legislature permitted Memphis State to drop “Teachers” from its title to become Memphis State College; Middle and East Tennessee followed suit in 1943. All survived World War II with help from federal agencies that used faculties and facilities for training special military detachments. In 1949 the state board of education authorized state colleges to develop master of arts programs in liberal arts and education. With veterans and later “baby-boomers” arriving on campuses, state and private colleges prospered. Salaries increased, appropriations increased, and private and government foundations were generous in comparison to preceding decades.

In 1955 the Legislative Council recommended a thorough study of the state-supported institutions of higher learning. A staff headed by Truman M. Pierce and A. D. Albright involved professors and administrators on every state campus for two years, as they accumulated statistics to point up strengths and weaknesses in the system. These were used to make 104 recommendations for improving administration, faculties, facilities, financing, and academic standards of state universities and colleges. As a result, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (familiarly known as THEC and pronounced “T-hec”) was created in 1967 to have oversight of the University of Tennessee and the six regional universities. Other recommendations included high-level technical training, more financial aid for students, delegation of some authority to student governments, encouragement of faculty research, more counseling services, and a limit to the number of institutions requiring expensive technical and professional training. A “common core of education” (liberally translated to include introductory courses in liberal arts, sciences, and social sciences) would be required of all students.

Control of the University of Tennessee remained with the board of trustees. A board of regents with a chancellor and staff was created to direct the affairs of the other state universities. Tennessee A&I was the first state college to become a university in 1951. Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) followed in 1957, as did East Tennessee in 1963, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee Tech in 1965, and Austin Peay in 1967. State universities expanded their intellectual horizons when Memphis State acquired a law school in 1962, later named for President Cecil C. Humphreys, and East Tennessee State, in 1974, established a medical college named for U.S. Representative James Quillen.

In 1984, on the recommendation of THEC, the legislature created and funded Centers of Excellence for qualified state universities and the University of Tennessee; two years later, Centers of Emphasis were made available to the community colleges. Legislators also provided endowments for Chairs of Excellence. The centers focused on the expansion of research and economic development, regional and national recognition, recognition of the different missions among the institutions, and leverage of state funds. The Chairs of Excellence attract eminent scholars, budding scholars, and graduate students to the state's universities. In 1995 there were ninety-four Chairs of Excellence, twenty-six Centers of Excellence, and fifteen Centers of Emphasis.

Changes in education curricula came at the same time that the system began to react to the Civil Rights movement, and Tennessee's colleges underwent a relatively peaceful transition compared to the disturbances on the campuses of other states. In 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Robert L. Taylor ruled that two African American applicants be admitted to the graduate and law schools of the University of Tennessee because equal facilities were not available in the state's black university as required by legislation passed in 1941. The students enrolled in 1952. In the fall of 1955 Judge Marion S. Boyd ruled that state laws on segregation and the board's plan for gradual desegregation were no longer binding. East Tennessee State admitted its first black student in January 1956. Other state institutions fell into line. Peaceful integration of higher education became an accomplished fact.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, there were demonstrations and sit-ins on the state's campuses as African American students demanded courses in black history, the hiring of black faculty, and recognition of discriminatory practices. Protesters demonstrated against the draft, ROTC, and the undeclared war in Vietnam. The radical group Students for a Democratic Society was active on some campuses. Student demands included greater representation in university affairs, often including membership on all faculty committees. These were exciting decades, and some reforms were made in academe, which, in hindsight, do not seem so extreme.

From 1966 to 1977, THEC, regents, legislators, and governors bestirred themselves to finance, plan, and activate nine community colleges, three technical colleges, and two technical institutes strategically located to offer comprehensive vocational and technical training and two-year liberal arts courses for students of all ages. The community colleges developed courses leading to associate degrees in eighty-three areas of learning and forty-eight one- and two-year certificates.

Community colleges provide courses for adults who want to improve occupational skills, augment professional expertise, or enhance hobbies and leisure activities. Courses range from infant, toddler, and preschool care to fundamentals of money management, robotics, electric circuitry, pipe fitting and plumbing practices, computer technology, microbiology based medical instrumentation, and food and beverage management. Freshman and sophomore level courses are offered in the liberal arts–history, English, languages, political science, mathematics, economics, science, sociology, and art. Medical technicians, electricians, automobile mechanics, civil servants, legal aides, computer experts, bartenders, beauticians, and others have broadened their knowledge and sharpened their skills in community college courses. Community colleges boast an impressive record of encouraging unmotivated students to excel, with many continuing their education at the state's universities.

Of the forty-seven universities and colleges evaluated by Merriam in 1893, sixteen have survived. One of the strongest to become victim to progress in the twentieth century was Peabody Normal. In 1910 it became George Peabody College for Teachers and moved from the University of Nashville campus to a model campus on Twenty-first Avenue, across the street from Vanderbilt. It became the mecca, especially every summer, for several thousand public school teachers, superintendents, and professors of education from southern and southwestern states seeking master's degrees and doctorates. Because students could earn a master's by taking more courses in lieu of writing theses, some critics referred to Peabody and other colleges with similar policies as degree mills. Competition from the many state teachers colleges developing graduate programs at lower costs for students, the rising costs to universities to provide quality education, and the decrease in the number of foundations willing to support single specialty institutions forced Peabody trustees to accept a proposal in 1979 to merge with its neighbor as George Peabody College for Teachers of Vanderbilt.

Among the best criteria for evaluating universities and colleges on their undergraduate programs are endowments, appropriations, alumni, academic standards, and the number of scholarships available. One academic standard is membership in Phi Beta Kappa Society, founded in 1776. Of the seven state supported universities and thirty-seven private colleges and universities in Tennessee, five have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Vanderbilt became a member in 1901; the University of the South in 1926; Rhodes College (formerly Southwestern at Memphis and Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville) in 1949; Fisk University in 1954; and the University of Tennessee in 1965. Several years earlier, UT had been turned down because, among other reasons, more scholarships were available for athletes than for academic achievers.

As they confront the needs of the twenty-first century, members of THEC are assessing whether the universities under their supervision have too many graduate programs in agriculture, business, education, engineering, health, human ecology (home economics), and protective services. The universities train more graduate students in education administration, for example, than the market can absorb. THEC members may conclude that some programs should be eliminated, but they can only recommend that the two boards drop programs that either overproduce or do not meet their quotas. As the twentieth century fades, THEC will employ an independent consultant to study problems in the university system and make recommendations for THEC to pass to the regents and trustees. By 2005 the future of higher education in Tennessee for the twenty-first century will have begun to take shape.

Suggested Reading

Paul K. Conkin, Gone With the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University (1985); Lucius S. Merriam, Higher Education in Tennessee: Contributions to American Educational History, ed. Herbert B. Adams (1893); James Riley Montgomery, Stanley J. Folmsbee, and Lee Seifert Greene, To Foster Knowledge: A History of the University of Tennessee, 1794-1970 (1984); Harvey G. Neufelt and W. Calvin Dickinson, The Search for Identity: A History of Tennessee Technological University, 1915-1985 (1991); Roy S. Nicks, ed., Community Colleges of Tennessee: The Founding and Early Years (1979); Truman M. Pierce and A. D. Albright, Public Higher Education in Tennessee (1957); William Sorrells, The Exciting Years: The Cecil C. Humphreys Presidency of Memphis State University, 1960-1972 (1987); Frank B. Williams Jr., A Universitys Story 1911-1980, East Tennessee State University (1991)

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  • Article Title Higher Education
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018