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UT Moves Forward on Plan to Absorb Middle TN Private College

Martin Methodist College

The University of Tennessee's Board of Trustees gave their approval this week to move forward on a plan that would add a small private college to the state's flagship university system, but the merger is not a closed case yet.

Under the plan announced in September, Martin Methodist College in Giles County would become UT's fourth undergraduate campus and the first to join the system since UT Chattanooga in 1969. MMC's board of trustees gave their go-ahead to the plan Wednesday. If the acquisition plan reaches fuition, MMC faculty would become UT faculty, and its students would trade their RedHawks scarlet for Volunteer orange.

Enrollment at Martin Methodist, established in 1870, has eroded in recent years. A report prepared by a UT-contracted consultant showed the campus hosts about 900 undergraduate students, fewer than 700 of which are full-time. Joining the Tennessee system will help ensure the college's future, Martin Methodist board chair Richard Warren said.

While acquiring the college will not cost UT any money, the university will assume Martin Methodist's debt and maintenance costs. The college's balance sheet lists nearly $10 million in current liabilities, including a $7-million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Repairs and building maintenance are estimated to cost nearly $5 million in the next three to five years. (That said, the report also notes that generally MMC's buildings are in as good a shape than buildings on UT's other campuses.)

MMC has also seen its revenue fall along with student enrollment, losing about $3.1 million in cash and investments from June 2018 to June 2020. To break even, the consultants recommended increasing MMC enrollment by 150 full-time students. But the study's authors cautioned near-term enrollment changes will be hard to predict because it's unknown how many of the current students are drawn by MMC's Methodist affiliation.

"[E]nrollments may grow more slowly than hoped, leaving the campus to face financial deficits over its first two years," the report said.

University of Tennessee system president Randy Boyd painted a more optimistic picture, describing the merger as an opportunity for the University of Tennessee to expand its footprint into an area not curently served by a system campus. The consultants' report said college enrollment and graudation in the southern Middle Tennessee region served by MMC is below the state average. Boyd has referred to the area as a higher education desert.

Middle Tennessee State University, 75 miles northeast of Martin Methodist, disagrees. In October, MTSU President Sidney McPhee and board president Stephen Smith released a joint statement questioning the MMC/UT plan.

“MTSU is better positioned to provide any additional higher educational services to the southern part of our Middle Tennessee region, both in terms of geography and efficiency,” Smith said.

Smith and McPhee said they are contacting state lawmakers and higher-education policymakers to plead MTSU's case and discuss possibly extending its own services into the area.

In Wednesday's UT Board of Trustees meeting, Boyd indicated he wanted the plan approved sooner rather than later. Moving forward now, he said, means the merger can be factored into state budget planning early next year.

The deal still requires approval from the Tennessee General Assembly, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the United Methodist Church of Tennessee and the Tennessee Building Commission. Boyd hopes the merger will be complete by July 1, 2021.