The Courthouse turned orange, people celebrated in the streets, dignitaries gathered and the governor cut the ribbon. From midnight to noon July 1, 2021, the University of Tennessee Southern was welcomed to Pulaski, Giles County, Tenn., in grand fashion.
The only public four-year university along the southern border of Tennessee between Memphis and Chattanooga came into existence on July 1 replacing its predecessor Martin Methodist College in Pulaski.
After three hours of reveling along Second Street on the west side of the Pulaski Square, approximately 2,000 people cheered as University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd counted down MMC’s final moments and the birth of a new institution that is expected to expand the state’s education system as much as it is expected to ignite the potential of one of the country’s fastest growing regions.
As midnight came, the Giles County Courthouse, which had been lit up all night in Martin Methodist red, changed to UT Southern orange. Boyd led the crowd in the first ever “Go Firehawks” cheer. The stage was set for a more formal and ceremonial event later in the morning marking the significance of what Boyd has called a transformative opportunity for everyone involved.
In an interview on his way to Pulaski Thursday morning, Gov. Bill Lee expressed his excitement for the region and for Tennessee students who want to get their degrees but don’t necessarily want to leave the region where they live and work.
Lee said his initial and continuing excitement about the creation of UT Southern in Pulaski is its fulfillment of his focus on the rural communities of Tennessee.
“The fact that this would occur largely in a rural community in the middle of a number of rural communities made this an attractive component to me,” Lee said. “I am a strong believer in the concept that we have to be focused on the economies of rural Tennessee. That means we have to invest there and we have to make certain that we increase the opportunity in rural communities.”
Lee added access to higher education for the citizens of south central Tennessee and the fact that UT Southern was improving the state’s higher education flagship, the University of Tennessee, to his list of reasons the idea has been compelling to him since Boyd first approached him with it.
“All of those coming together in this location is very exciting to me,” he said. “No one can deny that it’s a rural play, it’s a higher education access play, it’s a high quality University of Tennessee play. This is the first expansion of the university system in over 50 years. This decision will permanently, and I believe permanently positively, impact the people of this region of the state for generations potentially and to be a part of that is such a privilege. I’m really excited about it.”
At Thursday’s ribbon cutting ceremony, County Executive Melissa Greene declared July 1, 2021, University of Tennessee Southern Day in Giles County. Pulaski Mayor Pat Ford expressed the community’s excitement. Chancellor Mark La Branche was welcomed as UT Southern’s first chancellor. Tennessee’s Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton and Boyd joined Gov. Lee in expressing the state’s excitement over the opportunity that UT Southern represents for everyone involved.
“I think the impact is ultimately going to be a higher quality of life in that region and a higher economic activity,” Lee said. “Anytime you can place a major university in an area, there’s an ecosystem that surrounds that university, both the employees, the faculty, the research, the folks that are attracted to the region because of the institution itself. All of those things will happen and that will create opportunity right there in south central Tennessee.”
Lee also tapped into the historical significance of July 1, 2021, for the school, city, county and state.
“It’s important to remember that the historical events that made Tennessee one of the greatest states in the country have a timeline and you find yourself thinking that we are making history, all of us right now, that will be celebrated generations from now,” the governor said. “I think the addition of UT Southern will be one of those events on the timeline that people will forever acknowledge and remember in the state.”
With the excitement and events of July 1, 2021, in the rearview mirror, the University of Tennessee Southern is now turning its collective attention to UT Southern’s first students.
La Branche said some students are currently on campus taking summer courses.
For fall students, Move -In Day is scheduled for Aug. 21 and the Beginning of School celebration for UT Southern is set for Aug. 26.