East Tennessee State University

Contributed by East Tennessee State University, Department of University Relations

What is now a multi-purpose regional university of eight colleges and schools began October 2, 1911, as East Tennessee Normal School, a two year institution for training teachers.  Since that time, the campus has expanded from five buildings on 120 acres to 76 buildings on 366 acres, the faculty has grown from 22 to over 500 and enrollment has jumped from 29 to over 11,000 with students from 40 states and 35 foreign countries.

The First Decade

By a 1909 act of the Tennessee General Assembly, the State Board of Education was authorized to establish three normal schools – one for each grand division of the state – for the education and training of teachers.  Competition was fierce between towns, but Upper East Tennessee pulled together and Johnson City was selected as a normal-school site.

Land for the campus was donated by local businessman and railroad entrepreneur George L. Carter, and the first buildings were constructed.  With the recruitment of students, location of faculty and development of courses well in hand, it was time to “start school.”  On Monday, October 2, 1911, East Tennessee State Normal School opened its doors.

The equivalent of a high-school education could be obtained at the new school as well as two years of teacher’s training.  The first day of classes saw twenty-nine students registered.  By the end of the fall term, eighty students were enrolled in the two-year normal program.

The campus was comprised of a women’s dormitory, a dining hall, a heating plant, the president’s home and an administration building-classroom facility.  Registration cost two dollars and books ranged from two to three dollars per quarter, but tuition was free.  Rooms were available to students for six dollars while meals were priced form twenty-four to thirty-six dollars per term.

Most of the original twenty-two faculty members were native East Tennesseans.  Sidney G. Gilbreath, the first president, personally recruited each one.

East Tennessee State Normal School experienced rapid growth throughout the decade.  Men’s and women’s literary societies began, the Debating League Center was established, the Alumni Association was founded and the United Student Body was organized.  Old Hickory, the first yearbook, was printed by the senior class, and athletics made their appearance, originating with track and basketball teams.   An undefeated-untied season was achieved by the girls’ basketball team in 1917-18.

Enrollment increased and in 1919 the normal school added a third year of college work to its curriculum.

The 1920’s

East Tennessee State Normal School was growing up, and the new decade meant development and innovation.  With support from the community, scholarships and student loans were established and by the summer of 1924 more than 1,000 students were enrolled.

A new four-year program was instituted that same year, and the normal school became East Tennessee State Teachers College.  In 1925 the college was empowered to grant the bachelor of science degree, and Dr. Charles C. Sherrod came on board as president.  Two years later the college received accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.

Library holdings increased from 4,000 volumes in 1925 to more than 25,000 by the early 1930’s.  Within a ten-year period beginning in 1928, a $500,000 building program resulted in eight new buildings at the college.

The first football team saw action in 1920.  The fifteen-member squad posted a 3-3 record as “On Teachers On” became a popular song across campus.


In 1930, East Tennessee State Teachers College became State Teachers College, Johnson City, with some 1,420 students enrolled.  The college pushed forward to remain open and to grow despite the Great Depression, lack of money and a bill deliberated by the state legislature to close the school as “an unnecessary luxury.”


President Sherrod guided State Teachers College, Johnson City, as a new fireproof library opened in 1931 with one floor designed for a museum, and an addition was made to the girls’ dormitory.  Two homes were purchased; one for use as classrooms and the other as the Home Management House.  In 1932, the football team won the Smoky Mountain Conference; in 1934 the WPA built the outdoor football stadium and went on to complete the Amphitheatre two years later; and the “Teachers” became the “Buccaneers.”  The silver anniversary was celebrated in 1936.

The 1940’s

As the school developed programs to meet the needs of a growing and changing region, it outgrew the “teachers college” label, becoming a multipurpose institution.  In 1943, State Teachers College, Johnson City, became East Tennessee State College.

When World War II diminished the number of male students on campus, President Sherrod initiated the college’s first military training program for Army Air Corps cadets.  Campus sports activities experienced a dramatic slowdown during the war while business administration and nursing programs began and the graduate school was organized.

The post-World War II era brought unprecedented growth as the nation became aware of the value of higher education and hundreds of veterans with GI Bill benefits returned to East Tennessee State College.  In 1949, Dr. Burgin E. Dossett was named president.

The 1950’s

The growth of East Tennessee State College in the 1950’s was visible on and off the campus.  The bachelor of arts degree was approved, and expansion included the establishment of the School of Graduate Studies and the undergraduate schools of Arts and Sciences, Business Administration and Economics, and Education.  The first master of arts degree was granted in 1951 and three years later the bachelor of science in nursing was added.  In 1959, the Kingsport Center opened, enabling the college to better serve the Tri-Cities area.

The football team was victorious in the Burley Bowl of 1952, 1953, and 1955.  ETSC withdrew from the Smoky Mountain Conference in 1952, briefly joined the Volunteer State Athletic Conference and was admitted to the Ohio Valley Conference in 1957.

As East Tennessee State College moved toward its 50th year, the size of the faculty and staff grew, building construction proceeded on the campus and the school experienced a remarkable increase in enrollment.


Growth and service became the institution’s goals during this decade.  The college celebrated its golden anniversary in 1961, and two years later the grown-up version of the old East Tennessee Normal School officially became East Tennessee State University.

Complementing the Kingsport University Center, the Bristol and Greeneville centers began operation.  The Carroll Reece Museum opened, the first master of science degree was awarded and the School of Health was established.  In 1965, ETSU’s schools of Arts and Sciences, Business Administration and Economics, and Education achieved college status.

During President Dossett’s nineteen-year administration, enrollment quadrupled to more the 8,900 and many new structures appeared on campus, including ten classroom buildings, eleven dormitories, a library addition, a student union and a gymnasium.  In 1968, Dr. D.P. Culp assumed the ETSU presidency.

East Tennessee State University’s football team drew national recognition by defeating Louisiana Tech, quarterbacked by Terry Bradshaw, in the 1969 Grantland Rice Bowl.

The 1970’s

Development marked ETSU in the 1970’s.  By an act of the Tennessee General Assembly in 1974, the Quillen-Dishner College of Medicine was established to fulfill a need for more primary-care physicians in the area.  The Nave Paramedical Center in Elizebethton was also acquired.

Expansion on the campus also continued during Dr. Culp’s tenure as a new student and Memorial Center – the Minidome – were constructed.  The schools of Applied Science and Technology, Nursing, and Public and Allied Heath were established.  Enrollment throughout the university reached 10,000, registration by computer began and the education specialist program was launched.  ETSU also awarded its first Ph.D. degree.

Dr. Arthur H. DeRosier Jr. became president in 1977 and expanded the university’s vision to include all of Appalachia.  Both the Institute for Appalachian Affairs and the Archives of Appalachia came into being to form the nucleus of ETSU’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Service.

Women athletes joined the intercollegiate program in 1974.  The track team, also known as the “Irish Brigade,” was fourth best in the nation and captured the NCAA championship.  In 1978, ETSU entered the Southern Conference.

The 1980’s

Dr. Ronald E. Beller ushered in the new decade, becoming the institution’s sixth president in 1980 as the university “came of age.”

In 1982, the College of Medicine’s first class of physicians graduated. The Center for Appalachian Studies and Services became East Tennessee State University’s first Center of Excellence as established by the Tennessee legislature; the Center for Early Childhood Learning and Development has also received the “Center of Excellence” designation.

The university’s reputation for excellence was further enhanced in 1984 when Dr. Jack Higgs was cited by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) as one of the eight best professors in the nation.  Dr. Higgs is an internationally respected expert in the literature and philosophy of sports.

The 1980’s have witnessed ETSU’s conversion from the quarter system to semesters while enrollment is steady around the 10,000 mark. “Pepper,” a lovable parrot, became the university’s mascot.

In October 1984, the first university-wide convocation was held with Dr. James Fisher, CASE president, pointing out the ETSU “ is becoming a national focal point for the best things in higher education.”  Vice President George Bush visited the campus in 1985 to dedicate the Cecile Cox Quillen Chair of Medicine, named for the wife of First District Congressman James H. Quillen.  Funds raised for the chair will allow ETSU’s College of Medicine to recruit an internationally recognized expert in geriatrics and gerontology.

In 1986, East Tennessee State University celebrated its 75th anniversary with a year-long series of events.  The anniversary theme of “Tradition and Vision” reflected the determination and foresightedness that enabled ETSU to experience such remarkable growth while still maintaining its commitment to excellence.