historical ayres

Our History

Did you know that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is one of the oldest public universities in the country? Did you know that it was forced to close two times? It has also had three names before becoming the University of Tennessee.  A school this old has a lot of stories to tell.

UT had humble beginnings. It started off as Blount College in 1794, two years before Tennessee became a state. Blount College was located where downtown Knoxville exists today and was nonsectarian, which was rare for a higher education institution in those days. By today's standards of inflation, tuition and salaries at the time were low.  An 1805 receipt reveals one man paid just $8 for his son’s tuition. UT's first president, Samuel Carrick, received an annual salary of $450.

Following Carrick's death in 1809, the college struggled to gain funding and new leadership. It closed for a decade, reopening in 1820 as East Tennessee College, thanks to a temporary partnership with Knoxville's Hampden-Sydney Academy, a boys’ school that had begun operation in 1817. The partnership brought in sufficient operating funds to allow the college to reopen.

In 1826, the university dissolved its partnership with the academy and moved to what is now known as the Hill. Around that time, the college boasted just six faculty members, around ninety-five students, and a simple curriculum of sciences, mathematics, and languages. In 1840 the name changed again to East Tennessee University. The curriculum expanded to include agriculture and mechanical arts under the 1862 Morrill Act, which granted federal land to the university with the stipulation that the school provide instruction in these areas. Things were looking up for the university. But then the nation became entrenched in a civil war, and the university did not remain unscathed.

In fact, the school was forced to close again; the university's buildings were used as a hospital for Confederate troops and were later occupied by Union troops. The war ravaged the campus, severely damaging buildings and pockmarking the grounds with trenches and blast holes. However, President Thomas Humes set to work rehabilitating the university, made possible in part by an $18,500 federal grant for repairs. In 1866, classes resumed.

Three years later, the state legislature designated the university as the state’s federal land-grant institution, which finally allowed the school to benefit from the Morrill Act. Almost 300 acres of land were purchased for $30,000. This land became a farm for the College of Agriculture, which was founded that same year.

In 1879, the state legislature changed the school’s name to its present name of the University of Tennessee, thus beginning UT’s modern era. Under the auspices of President Charles Dabney, UT raised enrollment to more than 700, created a graduate school, expanded infrastructure, and brought in new faculty from around the country. Also under his tenure, in 1891, the first female students were admitted and housed in the first women’s dormitory, Barbara Blount Hall.

The foundation for UT's athletic powerhouse started to be built around this time. Intramural baseball teams formed in the 1870s. The year 1891 saw the university’s first football team. The university band, the Pride of the Southland, formed in 1869 and played at its first football game in 1902. The women’s athletic program began in 1900 with tennis and rowing. 

It wasn't until 1921 that Shields-Watkins field and its encompassing Neyland Stadium would be completed. After sixteen expansions, Neyland Stadium is the third-largest non-racing stadium in the nation. However, back then it was a small field with bleachers on the east and west sides, where fans could watch baseball, football, and track and field.

UT saw major expansions at the turn of the century. Taking office in 1904, President Brown Ayres oversaw the creation of UT’s colleges of law and medicine in Knoxville, and the college of dentistry in Memphis. President Ayres also established a stand-alone library and raised the institution’s academic and admissions standards. A $1 million grant from the legislature in 1917 allowed the construction of a new building on the Hill. Two years later, the president suddenly died. So when the building was completed in 1921, it was named Ayres Hall in his honor.

Expansion hit a standstill during World War II. Thousands of students enlisted in the military, and the university launched an "accelerated victory program" to train them for wartime service. During the war, the university also had strong connections with what is now known as the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which was engaged in a secret project to create a nuclear weapon. Following the war, the two entities began collaborating to share knowledge and resources, and did so for many years. This partnership was strengthened in 2000, when UT and the DOE joined forces to create UT-Battelle, a private not-for-profit company that manages and operates ORNL.

UT expanded again under the leadership of Andy Holt, president from 1959 to 1970. President Holt’s tenure saw research funding and enrollment triple, and forty buildings were erected throughout UT’s statewide campuses—ten of which were built on the Knoxville campus, including Hodges Library and the Presidential Complex. The UT Medical Center, a teaching hospital providing research opportunities for UT interns, residents, and researchers, was opened in 1956. In 1999, UT Health Systems, a not-for-profit, formed to take over operations and funding for the hospital.

Holt also worked to form the UT system, a statewide administrative system for the university. The UT system includes the four campuses in Knoxville, Memphis, Martin, and Chattanooga, and the institutes of Agriculture, Public Service, and Space.

In 1952, the university admitted its first African American graduate student. In 1961, the first African American undergraduates enrolled. In 2011, UT launched a yearlong celebration to mark this event and the legacy of a half-century of African American achievement on campus.

The previous decade has brought about a new wave of change and growth.  A change in the state constitution allowed for a state lottery and dedicated funds for lottery scholarships for Tennessee students.  A surge in applications since 2003 has attracted the state’s best and brightest students, resulting in a significant rise in the academic qualifications of its entering freshman, enhanced freshman to sophomore retention, and higher overall graduation rates.

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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Knoxville, Tennessee 37996 | 865-974-1000

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.