When East Tennessee State Normal School was founded in 1911 under former President Sidney Gilbreath to educate the region’s teachers, it might’ve been difficult to imagine what the institution would become more than a century later in 2019.
Only 29 students registered on the first day of the school’s first semester. Today, East Tennessee State University has an enrollment of over 14,500 students and offers a wide variety of programs in 11 colleges and schools.
Senior Vice President for Academics and Interim Provost Wilsie Bishop said Gilbreath would be proud of the university’s progress over the decades, in terms of both capital projects and academic program growth.
“I think he was a man with vision, and I think he knew creating an institution of higher education here in Johnson City and serving Northeast Tennessee was going to make a difference in the lives of people. That was part of what he established as our original mission,” said Bishop, who’s held a variety of administrative positions at the university since arriving at the campus in 1978.
In the institution’s early days, Bishop said the university was viewed primarily as “a university that was convenient for people in the area to come to.”
“I think we’ve grown in our ability to attract faculty from across the country – some of the faculty that came to us this year came from some of the best institutions in the country,” Bishop said. “I think they’re drawn to ETSU because they see that we are a growing institution. The growth has allowed us to have more specialized programs and have a wide array that you’d expect to find at a university. I think we draw students now because of the reputation of our programs.”
In 1925, the school became a college, changed its name to East Tennessee State Teachers College and gained accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. In 1943, the college became East Tennessee State College before finally settling on East Tennessee State University in 1963.
Since the 1970s, ETSU’s enrollment has doubled, and the university’s distinguished health science programs have emerged into what they are today. By 1978, the university’s Quillen College of Medicine admitted its first students after being established by the legislature in 1974.
“In 1978, the College of Health was split into the College of Public and Allied Health and the College of Nursing. They were called ‘schools’ at the time,” Bishop said. “So the activity of putting the five colleges together that we now have that serves as the Academic Health Science Center, or ETSU Health, really started in ’78.”
Before Stanton Gerber Hall was built, some College of Medicine labs were inside the university’s Mini-Dome under the bleachers. From the mid-70s to 2000, Bishop said the “dome was doing more than athletic events.”
“They were doing research under the bleachers,” Bishop pointed out.
In 2005, the university established the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy after locals rallied to found the new school. In 2007, the College of Public and Allied Health, which Bishop was previously dean of, was split into the College of Public Health and College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences.
“I think (Gilbreath) probably would be surprised to see what a strong academic health center the university has become,” Bishop said.
Bishop said the physical makeup of the university’s main campus has changed dramatically over the decades, particularly under President Brian Noland’s tenure.
Since Noland took leadership in 2012, the construction of the $26 million William B. Greene Jr. football stadium was conceptualized and eventually completed in 2017 after the football program was reintroduced. Now the $45.5 million renovations to the D.P. Culp University Center and the long-anticipated $53 million James C. and Mary B. Martin Center for the Arts are set to be completed in 2020.
Earlier this year, the newly acquired $20 million Millennium Center was transformed into a new academic building for ETSU’s highly ranked computer science program, complete with new, state-of-the-art classrooms. ETSU also recently requested $71.8 million from Gov. Bill Lee’s budget for a new humanities building.
“I’ve been here on my 42nd year, so I’ve seen the campus change a whole lot during the time I’ve been here. When I first arrived, State of Franklin (Road) wasn’t finished in front of the university,” Bishop said. “The visible image that the university provided to the community has changed significantly.”