The first step has been taken in a historic move that, if approved, would make Martin Methodist College the newest undergraduate institution in the University of Tennessee System.
If all the elements of a letter of intent signed in July are achieved over the next year, MMC would become the fourth undergraduate college in the UT System, joining UT Knoxville, UT Chattanooga and UT Martin. It would also be the first undergraduate school added to the UT System since the University of Chattanooga became UT Chattanooga more than 50 years ago.
“We are always looking to expand educational opportunities for Tennesseans,” UT President Randy Boyd said. “Martin Methodist is a historic institution that, for 150 years, has provided opportunities and excellence to Tennesseans in critical areas such as nursing, education, criminal justice, social services and business. Its graduates are vital to the long-term economic success of the region.”
Being the first step, the letter of intent sets forth the parameters by which the agreement would be forged. What the campus will be named and other transitional details have not been determined.
“This is all pending approval,” Martin Methodist College President Dr. Mark La Branche said. “There has to be several steps and we don’t want to be presumptuous. But we want to be public about the discussion and our confidence that this will be a success pending the final approval by both sets of trustees, the legislature and our accreditors.”
Both Boyd and La Branche agreed that timing, similar missions, geography and vision have all been part of developing the idea of joining Martin Methodist College with the University of Tennessee.
For Martin Methodist, La Branche praised the MMC Board of Trustees who, he said, asked school leadership to think beyond just sustainability and, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, asked them to further think about ways MMC might partner for growth and for expansion.
“I told [Boyd] there’s nothing more compelling than an idea whose time has come and this seems to be one of those ideas,” La Branche said. “My feeling is we’ve done good for 150 years at Martin Methodist and we’ll continue to do good regardless of the opportunities before us. But in the words of Jim Collins, we don’t want the good to be sacrificed to the great. I think that we have the opportunity through this possible partnership to move from good to great.”
Boyd said the alignment of the missions of both Martin Methodist and the University of Tennessee has been a catalyst in the effort to bring the two institutions together.
“The University of Tennessee is here to serve the people of Tennessee, to provide a ladder up for the working class, the middle class, to get better opportunities for a better job and a better life,” Boyd said. “Martin Methodist has a similar mission in the region of southern Middle Tennessee to make sure that the people of that community can get a great education and get great jobs.”
Calling it a win-win-win situation, Boyd noted that Martin Methodist employees, Pulaski and Giles County and, most importantly, the students would benefit from the enhancements that would come from the partnership.
As the old saying goes, “timing is everything,” and both men agreed that it held true in this instance.
“The State of Tennessee needs to achieve the Drive to 55, our initiative to provide more opportunity to more students, and this is a great time for us to expand and look for ways to partner and help create more opportunities for our students,” Boyd said.
La Branche added that there had to be two willing partners who were in a position to explore this kind of partnership.
“The timing of the pandemic has accelerated thinking in a lot of ways,” La Branche said. “I think the pandemic caused us to really think about not just that we’re in good shape, we can move along and do good things, but what about five years from now, 10 years from now? With the acceleration of change, what does that look like?
“We feel like the timing is right, the college is strong, the will is there and the state, through Randy’s vision, has seen this opportunity to, as Randy puts it, put a firewall on the southern part of the state.”
Geography also played a large part in the decision to seek the partnership.
Martin Methodist College is the only four-year and graduate institution of higher education between Sewanee in the east and Freed-Hardeman in the west, serving a southern Middle Tennessee region of 13 counties near the Alabama border.
“Geography has to make sense,” Boyd said. "If we went to another part of the state where there are other public institutions, it wouldn’t make as much sense. And I have to say, you also have to have the right leadership, and you have the right leader in place today in President La Branche to have the right vision and also have the courage to take action.”
La Branche added that, for many in southern Middle Tennessee, the closest four-year institutions are in North Alabama.
“This is about the students, this is all about our mission to the students and the ones that are going to benefit the most are the students and families of southern Middle Tennessee,” he said.
The benefits the UT System brings to the partnership include more affordable tuition, more programs — both online and on campus, more educational opportunities with the University of Tennessee network of schools and the overall reputation of the UT System.
La Branche said religious life would continue to be embedded in the historically Methodist affiliated school.
“It will still exist,” he said. “The faith-based initiatives can happen under most circumstances, even under a state university. So we don’t see any critical boundaries that are going to keep us from doing the same kinds of activities with our students and our communities that we are doing now.”
If the history of the other communities with UT schools holds true, Pulaski and Giles County also stand to see a significant impact.
“Our universities are real drivers of the economies,” Boyd said. “If Martin Methodist is able to double its size in the next three to five years, imagine the impact it would have in Pulaski. Very significant. UTC, when it joined, had 1,000 students. Now it has 12,000 students. That might be a little ambitious, but it’s possible.”
And the community’s part will be to make the kinds of quality of life changes that attract professionals and high paying jobs, La Branche said.
“When I say that, I mean health, education, recreation, all of that,” he said. “My hope is that this will be a catalyst to really raise the quality of life and focus on our communities, being more attractive for professionals.”
The letter of intent formalizes the commitment of both parties to discuss the possible transfer of Martin Methodist’s assets to the UT System, where they would be governed by the UT Board of Trustees and become a financial responsibility of the state of Tennessee.
The votes of the boards of trustees are anticipated in late fall to prepare the proposed partnership for consideration in the next session of the Tennessee General Assembly. Accreditors would be asked to consider the partnership in June, meaning the earliest possible change would be July 2021.
“It is incredibly important for the University of Tennessee to provide better education for all Tennesseans, and to be able to have a presence in southern Middle Tennessee, where we never have, is incredibly important to us,” Boyd said. “The biggest motivation for us is the ability to work with a great partner, with great leadership, to make a difference in a part of the state that deserves all of the resources that we can provide.”
While they may not know at this time what the campus will be called, La Branche said there is one thing they do know, if the letter of intent is fulfilled and the partnership is realized.
“We do know what will be on the diplomas going forward if this were to happen, and that is simply The University of Tennessee,” he said.