Before 1912, Tennessee Tech’s campus was no more than a field of daisies bordered by a few dirt roads leading into the heart of Cookeville, a rural town noted mainly as a whistle stop between Nashville and Knoxville on the Tennessee Central railroad. Tennessee Tech’s first faculty, in fact, made a practice of meeting all passenger trains at the depot to shepherd disembarking students to school. Historians credit the railroad with the early development of Cookeville and the Upper Cumberland – the farthest point east in Middle Tennessee -- just as they credit a handful of local community leaders with the founding of Tennessee Tech. These leaders shared dual missions: establishing Cookeville as the hub of the Upper Cumberland and creating a school of higher learning to service the region. Though their first effort to found such a school failed, they succeeded in planting the seed that would blossom into Tennessee Tech.
In 1909, the state approved the charter of a church-supported school named the University of Dixie. Popularly known as Dixie College, the school opened its doors to students in 1912. Enrollment, however, was low and funding insufficient; the college struggled to keep its doors open. In a strategic move to salvage higher education in the Upper Cumberland, the school’s founders deeded the campus to the governments of Cookeville and Putnam County in 1915. Despite protests that the college be located in another part of the state, the act creating Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville was signed into law by Gov. Thomas Rye on March 27, 1915.
The institute, with 13 faculty members, opened its doors to 19 college students at the start of the 1916-17 academic year. At the time, Tennessee Tech’s campus consisted of 18 acres of undeveloped land, an administrative building and two dormitories. From 1916 to 1924, Tennessee Tech offered courses only at the high school and junior college levels. In the early days, all students worked in the school garden and kitchen, growing and canning their own food. They were “practical work” students, helping to build the campus’ first academic halls and maintain the grounds. They attended daily assemblies where Bible verses were read and instructions of proper behavior were given. The women kept strict hours. The men wore uniforms. All students prepared to be rural citizens skilled in industry and agriculture, with a modicum of fine arts and humanities education.
By 1929, the State Board of Education had authorized a complete college program and the first class of four-year graduates received bachelor’s degrees that June. In 1938, the instructional program was divided into two main divisions, “Arts and Sciences” and “Professional and Technical Subjects.” In 1949, in the population and enrollment boom of the post-World War II era, the programs were expanded into five schools: Agriculture and Home Economics, Arts and Sciences, Business Administration, Education and Engineering – an instructional mix very close to that of Tennessee Tech today. These five schools were reorganized into colleges in 1965, when Tennessee Polytechnic Institute gained university status, becoming Tennessee Technological University. In 1980, the university’s new School of Nursing and the Joe L. Evins Appalachian Center for Crafts began their B.S. and B.F.A. programs.
From the beginning, Tennessee Tech has been known as Tennessee’s technological university, and despite the political rivalries of the early part of the century, Tennessee Tech has flourished. All of Tennessee Tech’s undergraduate programs meet established academic quality standards as rated in external peer reviews. The university is also only the second public university to receive a Tennessee Quality Award.
Since Tennessee Tech was established, the university has blossomed from three buildings located on the fringes of a daisy field to an 87-building complex situated on 235 acres. The faculty have grown from the 13 men and women whose responsibilities included greeting students at the Tennessee Central depot to about 370 today. Curricula have changed from programs leading to high school and associate’s degrees to undergraduate and graduate programs, including the M.B.A., the Ed.S., and the Ph.D. in education, engineering and environmental sciences. From the first class of 19 students, Tennessee Tech’s enrollment has grown to more than 11,500. Among the 65,000-plus men and women who have received degrees from Tennessee Tech are the former president of Boeing Corp., a two-time space shuttle astronaut, an NFL pro-bowl player, a New York Times assistant managing editor, a country music superstar, and a four-star general.