Tennessee’s largest undergraduate institution finally broke ground Thursday on a capital project 18 years in the making, and the event attracted politicians and higher education advocates from across the state.
Gov. Bill Haslam, MTSU alumna Dr. Liz Rhea and MTSU President Sidney McPhee were on hand to break ground for MTSU’s new Science Building. (Photo by D. Gardonia)
The new MTSU Science Building will cost $147 million and is expected to open in the spring of 2015, replacing the Wiser-Patten Science Hall and Davis Science Building, which were built in 1932 and 1967, respectively.
MTSU has to foot $18 million of the bill with the Christy-Houston Foundation, Dr. Liz Rhea, and George and Charlotte Gardner contributing significant private gifts to make the project possible.
The new building will provide more than 250,000 square feet of teaching, laboratories and collaborative learning spaces for faculty and students, and more than 80 percent of all MTSU students will take at least one class in the new building as part of their core curriculum, according to a press release.
The sheer enormity of the project dwarfed other requests for capital projects from universities throughout the state, and required a two-decade, concerted effort on the part of Rutherford County’s legislative delegation in the General Assembly in order to finally get the funding.
“This project has been urgently pursued since before I was elected to the Senate in 2002,” said state Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), who is an MTSU alumnus. “The late Sen. Larry Trail (D-Murfreesboro), Rep. Kent Coleman (D-Murfreesboro), (former) Rep. John Hood (D-Murfreesboro) and I devised a strategy to force the funding by sitting on the end of the pipeline and waiting for it to explode … no one else would get their higher education projects funded until we got a new science buidling.”
The pipeline Ketron spoke of is the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s Capital Projects Plan, which has listed the project as its first priority for nearly eight years.
The project has also been listed as first priority in MTSU’s capital outlay funding requests and as the No. 1 capital project request of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which required aggressive bipartisan teamwork spanning 18 years and myriad changes in the county’s legislative delegation and MTSU personnel.
More importantly, the University of Tennessee was denied major capitol project requests until MTSU got its science building, as part of the strategy devised by Rutherford County’s delegation.
“This delegation is relentless!” House Speaker Beth Harwell said, pounding the podium during her address at the groundbreaking. “Not a day went by without at least one member of Rutherford’s delegation pulling me aside in the capitol hallways and asking about funding for this project.”
“This is such a needed addition to MTSU for the benefit of future students and will give them the ability to compete in our modern economy,” Coleman said. “It will give current graduates a boost and create local jobs in the short term through hiring of local contractors in its construction.”
The effort required the support of state legislators outside of Rutherford as well, many of whom were on hand for the groundbreaking and joined in the ceremony.
State Sen. Eric Stewart (D-Winchester) joined in hoisting a shovel during the groundbreaking along with Rep. Charles Sergeant (R-Franklin), both of which were key in convincing Gov. Bill Haslam to include the funding in his 2012 budget.
“This is a great project that benefits college students throughout the state as well as Rutherford County, and I am proud to have worked with leaders like Sens. Bill Ketron and Jim Tracy in making sure that MTSU has such a world-class facility,” Stewart said.
MTSU granted nearly 700 degrees in biology, chemistry and related fields during the 2009-10 academic year and the new facility will boost that number by at least 25 percent, MTSU President Sidney McPhee said.
“As we begin our second century of service to the State of Tennessee, today’s ceremony is an appropriate capstone to our year-long Centennial Celebration,” he said.
MTSU, then known as Middle Tennessee State Normal School, opened in 1911 to educate Tennessee’s teachers, and Ketron noted his own experience in the old science building while a student.
“I started my college career in the old Wiser-Patten building, and I thought it must have been 100 years old even then,” he said. “Thankfully, I graduated without blowing up the building or one of the labs while trying to pass my required science courses.”
Ketron also noted the even greater emphasis of science and technology training in today’s modern world economy.
“Today I am reading my prepared comments from a teleprompter application on my iPad, which I purchased instantly for $14.99, if that tells you anything about the modern economy that our college graduates must compete in,” he said.
Haslam praised the legialative delegation for its “passionate pressure.”
“Mr. Ketron and his delegation have applied what I like to call ‘passionate pressure’ to bring us to this point,” Haslam said. “It is such a necessary project that will help produce the number of graduates in science and technology fields, which Tennessee so desperately needs to support the high-tech jobs which my administration has made our first priority to recruit."