Conversations in Johnson City in 1911 probably often turned toward the impact the newly established East Tennessee State Normal School would have on the city.
Now, 100 years later, did anyone back then think that small school would grow into a major research university that would change the entire region’s education level, employment prospects, economic vitality and overall health of the people who live here? If no one thought those things, that certainly did not stop them from happening.
The institution that became East Tennessee State University had been open for 100 years Oct. 2. It was on that day in 1911 that 29 students enrolled there to become better teachers. Today, the 15,000 or so students at the university study much more than education, though that program of study is still available, albeit greatly changed. The 80,000-plus graduates from ETSU over the years have been awarded bachelor’s degrees in everything from history to nursing to biology to chemistry to music to art to journalism to engineering to business and much more, not to mention all the graduate degrees and the doctorates available that include diplomas from the colleges of medicine and pharmacy.
“ETSU has had a tremendous impact on the total of the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and North Carolina region,” said Roy S. Nicks, who was ETSU’s seventh president from 1992-96. “First in education; in raising the education level of the whole region. Secondly, economically. So the influence of East Tennessee State is just outstanding.”
The third major impact is in health care, Nicks said. Nicks was involved with the establishment of ETSU’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine, which he said has improved the region’s health exponentially.
That focus on health is probably one of the ETSU’s most noticeable regional impacts, said Dennis Vonderfecht, president and CEO of Mountain States Health Alliance.
“I think from a public standpoint, before the medical school was here people were having to travel out of the area to get medical care, particularly at higher levels in terms of specialists,” Vonderfecht said, adding that today very few people have to leave the area to get most medical procedures.
Much of that advancement in medicine is attributable to ETSU and the medical residencies and doctors necessary to staff, operate and maintain accreditation for the James H. Quillen College of Medicine. Vonderfecht said ETSU has helped the hospital system expand in ways that may not have been otherwise possible. For instance, the Niswonger Children’s Hospital, cardiac surgeons and cancer treatment programs are all here because of ETSU.
“A lot of that growth, I think, can be attributed to work that Mountain States has done with ETSU over the years in helping develop a lot of these higher level type programs and as a result of that establish working relationships with some of these outlying areas that ultimately ended up becoming a part of Mountain States Health Alliance,” Vonderfecht said.
Ronald Beller, who was ETSU’s sixth president during the 1980s, remembered the medical school’s first graduating class in 1982. He said after the medical school’s faculty had been hired and the school was accredited, he noticed a marked change in health care in the area.
“It became apparent in the medical community in the United States that there was a medical school here that was going to thrive,” Beller said.
Within two years of the medical school being accredited, there were more than 100 new medical practices established in the region, he said.
“So the docs came into the Tri-Cities,” Beller said. “They found this kind of a nice area. A lot more people than they thought. A lot better developed. And the beauty of all things; a market for their services.”
But it is more than health care that ETSU has contributed to Northeast Tennessee, said Dr. Paul Stanton Jr., the school’s eighth and current president. He noted the university has a fairly stable cadre of around 2,300 employees, which helps keep the economy strong locally by generating about $1 billion annually across the entire region.
ETSU’s influence extends to nearly every corner of East Tennessee with campuses in Kingsport and Elizabethton and partnerships with King College in Bristol, Milligan College in Carter County and a bachelor’s degree program in radiography in Sevierville. In summer 2010, Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Company, one of the largest employers in the region, gave ETSU Valleybrook Farm, a 144-acre tract of land in Sullivan County on which sits a 70,000-square-foot facility that will be good for research. That place has since been renamed Valleybrook Campus.
ETSU’s community partnership with the region is likely most visible in one of the university’s most recent academic additions, the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy. Larry Calhoun, pharmacy dean, said his college would not exist if not for the importance the entirety of Northeast Tennessee places upon ETSU. The community raised $5 million in a matter of months in 2005 to help establish the school. To date, 150 new pharmacists have been graduated out into the community.
Calhoun said it was exciting to think about how ETSU has progressed from educating teachers to graduating pharmacists in the past century. He said the partnership ETSU has with the community is one of ETSU’s lasting legacies, one that is evident in the pharmacy school.
“And I hope that 100 years from now when somebody pulls this out of the archive or whatever, they’re able to realize the important aspects of the community that made (the pharmacy school) happen,” Calhoun said, referring to the partnership ETSU has with the region. “That it wasn’t just an idea and we opened it.”
The education level of the region’s citizens is also greatly improved by ETSU, Stanton said. He cited statistics that claim about 20 percent of the region’s adults have baccalaureate degrees. Many of those degrees were earned at ETSU, Stanton said.
“I think it (the percentage of bachelor’s degrees here) would be significantly less than that if we didn’t have the university here,” Stanton said.
A good number of nurses and other health professionals working in this region and about 2,000 teachers in the greater region, including Southwest Virginia and parts of Western North Carolina, were educated at ETSU, Stanton said.
“So we impact everything pretty significantly,” Stanton said.
Jim Culp, an attorney in Johnson City and son of the late D. P. Culp, ETSU’s fourth president, said he thinks one major impact ETSU has had on the region is in its upward movement of Appalachian culture in that ETSU creates first-generation college students.
“I imagine they still get some first-generation college students to this day,” said Culp, who attended ETSU. “But I don’t think the phenomenon of being sort of the trailblazer for a family through higher education has died out yet. I think it’s still real. And if that’s the case there needs to be regional institutions like (ETSU) to serve those people. The whole region and by extension the whole country gets stronger if we do that.”