From the Desk of County Executive T.R. Williams

Martin Methodist – UT merger great news for Lawrence County

What will it mean for our new college facility if Martin Methodist College and the University of Tennessee merge?

You’ve heard the phrase “It’s all good?” In this case, it’s all great.
Six years ago we realized this region is completely underserved by public four-year universities. The nearest in Tennessee are at Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, and Memphis. Universities in Florence, Athens, and Huntsville, Alabama are closer and pull literally thousands of students from this area.

College graduates often stay in those places, robbing our counties and state of a large pool of professionals. “Brain drain” makes rural communities less attractive to high-paying employers and other amenities that create a better quality of life for everyone.

Our idea was to create a facility where students could earn Associate’s degrees through Columbia State, then Bachelor’s degrees through programs brought to it by four-year universities. The name reflected our intent to serve students beyond our county borders: Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center (STHEC).

Six years ago Randy Boyd was Gov. Bill Haslam’s Commissioner of Economic & Community Development and involved in conversations that led to the State’s partnership in the project. He still recognizes its value as President of the University of Tennessee system.

Martin Methodist College President Mark LaBranche and Randy Boyd (via Zoom) talked about the MMC – UT merger at last Friday’s meeting of the Lawrenceburg Rotary Club. Both praised local leaders whose vision was to fill the education void in this region.

“I wish I could bottle the can-do attitude in Lawrence County and take it to some other places,” LaBranche said. STHEC is a reality thanks to partnerships involving the state of Tennessee, Lawrence County, the City of Lawrenceburg, Lawrenceburg Utilities System, and private donations from local individuals, businesses, civic groups, and foundations. Lawrence County government provided $4 million of the $20 million project.

“You now have a partner in that vision – one with vast capacity and resources,” LaBranche said. “This is a momentous, historic time in Southern Middle Tennessee.”

UT will offer programs at the Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center (STHEC) because the Pulaski campus does not have the capacity to handle the expected growth. That does not change longstanding plans for STHEC to house Columbia State and junior and senior-level classes from Tennessee Technological University (TTU), and possibly other partners.

“We will be focusing on the highest needs, and will not duplicate efforts,” Boyd said. There is potential for students to be enrolled in classes from multiple institutions at the same time, and even earn joint degrees, he added.

The Boards of both schools approved the merger last week; in the New Year the state Legislature will be asked to approve 1) the merger, and 2) $5.1 million for students at the new campus. The funds are based on a per-student calculation that every school in the UT system receives. It will help make tuition at UT (a public institution) cost less than half that of MMC’s (a private institution).

Weather and COVID-19 have delayed completion of the 40,000-square-foot STHEC, but in the meantime, a new entrance to the campus has been built off the Highway 64 bypass. It leads to a roundabout that has exits to Southern Tennessee Lane (and STHEC) and Eagle Factory Road. Construction will begin in 2021 at another entrance south of the 43-64 intersection, off Highway 43.

Another aspect of the original plan excites everyone involved in the proposed MMC – UT merger. Eighty acres were purchased for the STHEC campus, the rest lying south of the current building. The master drawing for the site included 12 more buildings and the infrastructure is in place to serve them.

If you think these projections are way out of line, let me tell you something I learned Friday. Fifty years ago, UT merged with another small, private Methodist college in Chattanooga. UT Chattanooga’s enrollment now is approximately 12,000.

Boyd said UT will help build a “firewall” at the Alabama border, keeping students from Southern Middle Tennessee close to home. A small gap in the firewall would be left “for (Alabama’s) best and brightest to come to Tennessee.”

The hurdle we face is Legislative approval and funding. I feel good about that, especially given the strong support we have from our own representatives, State Senator Joey Hensley and Representative Clay Doggett. If you know lawmakers from other areas, I encourage you to contact them about this very important vote. A letter to Governor Bill Lee would not hurt.

The timeline is short: votes on the matter are expected as early as March. Following Legislative approval and another formal vote by the UT board, MMC would become the fourth undergraduate college in the UT system in July 2021.

Boyd said a name for the UT addition is under consideration, but will probably be something that reflects its region-wide service area, not a specific city or county.