Founded in Knoxville in 1794 as Blount College, the institution that would become the University of Tennessee began as a struggling college with a small student body and faculty. The Rev. Samuel Carrick served as its first president, forming the first academic programs from the seminary courses once taught from his home.

Named for Tennessee’s first governor, William Blount, the school was “open to students of all denominations” and operated from a downtown Knoxville building that was first provided to the college by James White, Knoxville’s founder. The college’s first tuition was $8 a session.

A State Institution: East Tennessee College

In 1807, the University became a state institution and was renamed East Tennessee College. Carrick died two years later, and the institution, on shaky financial ground, closed for several years.

East Tennessee College reopened in 1820 with the guidance of Rev. David Sherman. Fortunes improved, and the University bought 40 acres just west of downtown to establish a campus on what is now known as “The Hill.”

The college’s fifth president, Joseph Estabrook, led a significant period of growth that began in 1834. The following years saw the addition of faculty, improvements to the curricula, and new dormitories. Estabrook advocated the value of public education and the importance of establishing strong regional colleges in West, Middle, and East Tennessee. In 1840, the Tennessee legislature ratified his vision by renaming the college East Tennessee University.

black and white engraving of the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville
View of the University of Tennessee, circa 1877

Tennessee’s Land-Grant Institution: The University of Tennessee

Although the campus was ravaged during the Civil War, its fortunes turned when the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862. The law designated the university as a “land-grant” institution, allocating federal land and funds to teach agricultural and mechanical subjects and to train students for military service. The formal designation was made in 1869 due to complications associated with the war. Trustees soon approved the establishment of medical departments through the Nashville Medical College and added advanced degree programs. In the same year, East Tennessee University became the University of Tennessee.

Charles Dabney, UT’s 11th president, led the charge in 1887 to expand the science and engineering curricula and to officially admit women students. He abolished the Preparatory Department that once served women from a separate program and eliminated the military regime. He also influenced the state legislature to make its first appropriation to the University. Dabney’s term also saw the founding of a law school and the start of a teacher training institute.

Group of men pictured standing on football field
James T. Granberry, Brentwood Judge Geo. C. Taylor, Knoxville Dr. C.E. Brehm, Knoxville Gov. McCord W.M. Cox, Knoxville U.T. trustees, April 29, 1947

50 Years of Expansion

Following more years of growth under the direction of President Brown Ayres, the medical and dental colleges moved to Memphis and officially merged with the University of Tennessee. Subsequent state appropriations helped further develop the main campus. The legislature’s first $1 million appropriation led to the building of the iconic Ayres Hall, which opened its doors in 1921.

The next 20 years, led by Presidents Harcourt Morgan and James Hoskins, focused on expanding the University’s statewide mission. During the 1920s and 1930s, Hall-Moody Institute in Martin became part of UT, and officials added a graduate school to medical programs offered in Memphis.

Despite the Great Depression, statewide legislative and citizen-based support fueled the University’s growth. President Hoskins formally organized UT’s alumni and positioned the University as the key to improving the quality of health, housing, wealth, and income in the South. General Robert Neyland achieved national prominence by leading the football team to an undefeated, unscored-upon season and captured the national championship in 1951.

The Martin and Memphis campuses grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and the University incorporated large operations such as the Tennessee School of Social Work in Nashville and what would become UT Medical Center in Knoxville. Officials also founded the Municipal Technical Advisory Service to serve local governments across the state.

UTM graduates lined up outside the Hall-Moody Building
UT President Andy Holt, left, and UTM Chancellor Paul Meek lead a group past the Hall-Moody Administration during spring commencement, May 1960.

An Iconic Leader: President Andy Holt

Andry Holt portait
Andy Holt

President Andy Holt, the 16th system-wide leader, strengthened the network by establishing the University’s first ties to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In 1964, the UT Space Institute in Tullahoma opened and statewide research dollars for UT reached an all-time high.

The decades of expansion culminated with the merger of the University of Chattanooga with the University and the official formation of the University of Tennessee system in 1968, governed by the UT Board of Trustees. Offices of the UT System Administration were located on the Knoxville campus. Headed by chancellors, the campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Martin, and Memphis were unified in their mission of teaching, research, and public service. Holt’s term also marked full integration of all students by enrolling African-American undergraduates in 1961.

Continuing the Momentum

President Ed Boling led the University through years of student activism in the early 1970s. The Board of Trustees added a student seat—a full voting member.

Joe Johnson and Ed Boling
Joe Johnson and Ed Boling

The Institute for Public Service formed in 1971, dedicated to serving government, business, and industry. New colleges were formed in Knoxville for veterinary medicine and nursing. Initial efforts to establish a full-fledged campus in Nashville, however, ended in a merger with Tennessee State University in 1979.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander succeeded Boling as president in 1988, serving three years before becoming the nation’s Secretary of Education.

Dr. Joseph E. Johnson, who served as an assistant to President Holt, vice president for development, and chancellor at Memphis, was named UT president in 1991. A positive momentum continued throughout the University system as the Institute of Agriculture expanded its research programs, Extension services, and testing facilities across the state. UT celebrated its bicentennial in 1994.

The research venture between the University and ORNL was formally solidified in 2000 through a partnership between UT and Battelle Memorial Institute to manage the facility, 20 miles west of the Knoxville campus. The contract was years in the making and a significant step for the university’s future in research and economic development.

The Spallation Neutron Source, housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the world’s most advanced facility for neutron science.

The Beginning of the FUTURE

The new century began with a few setbacks in leadership, but strides in academic, research, and outreach progress continued. Dr. John Petersen was named UT’s 23rd president in 2004 and served until 2009. He quickly laid the foundation for a greater understanding of the University’s value and impact on all citizens of the state. Petersen’s leadership sparked momentum on the campuses to strengthen their own identities and celebrate their uniqueness.

UT renewed its agreement with Battelle for the management of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2005. The Spallation Neutron Source, the U.S. Department of Energy’s $1.4-billion research facility at ORNL, began operating the same year and is now the world’s most powerful accelerator-based source of neutrons for scientific research.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $65 million grant to the University in 2008 — the largest NSF grant in Tennessee history — to build and operate the supercomputer through a partnership with ORNL. Titan, one of the world’s most powerful academic supercomputers, is housed at the national lab.

Dr. Jan Simek, a long-time UT Knoxville professor of anthropology and administrator, was named interim president in 2009.

A pilot-scale biorefinery was completed in 2010 in collaboration with DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC to aid the commercial production of ethanol from agricultural residue and bioenergy crops.

The Campaign for Tennessee, the most ambitious fundraising effort in the history of the University, reached its $1-billion goal in June 2010, 18 months ahead of schedule.

Joe DiPietro at podium
Joe DiPietro addresses the Board of Trustees in 2010 after being elected elected the 24th president of the University of Tennessee.

A New Direction

Dr. Joe DiPietro was elected UT’s 25th president by the Board of Trustees in October 2010.

As chancellor of the UT Institute of Agriculture at the time of his election as president, DiPietro already was familiar with the University, and immediately rolled up his sleeves to finalize changes to the UT Foundation to enhance private fundraising abilities, to allocate resources to aid UT Knoxville with its goal of becoming a top 25 research institution, and to continue preparations for the end of stimulus funding that aided the University through the national economic downturn that began in 2008. In 2015, DiPietro introduced a plan to transition the University’s business model to rely less heavily on tuition and state appropriations and become more efficient and effective and entrepreneurial while striving for excellence.

DiPietro’s leadership allows the University to further fulfill its mission to educate, discover and connect with the people of the state of Tennessee.