College System of Tennessee, Columbia State Community College & other institutions celebrate Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center opening

Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center Inaugural Ceremony

The College System of Tennessee is proud to be a major part of the new Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center in Lawrenceburg, whose opening was celebrated Friday by the Lawrence County community.

Columbia State Community College is the center’s anchor institution, joining Tennessee Tech University and Martin Methodist College in the initial lineup of institutions providing classes, programs and services that will enable students in Southern Middle Tennessee to earn college credentials locally – from technical certificates to associate and baccalaureate degrees.

Columbia State is moving its Lawrence Campus to the new center. Columbia State began offering evening classes at Lawrence County High School in the 1970s, and since 1988 has provided classes and programs at its own Lawrence Campus on Springer Road.

While Friday marked the opening of the center’s first phase – a large multipurpose academic building with 15 classrooms and laboratories, a library and study spaces, faculty and administrative offices, and student services and student engagement spaces – long-term plans include a dozen buildings centered around community college, university, technical college and student housing quadrangles.

The Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology at Hohenwald and Pulaski both expect to offer career and technical training programs when new buildings planned for the technology quad come online. Both TCATs already provide training programs and courses in Lawrence and adjoining counties, including TCAT Hohenwald at its Lawrence County Instructional Service Center and TCAT Pulaski at Lawrence County, Loretto and Summertown High Schools.

Columbia State and TCATs Hohenwald and Pulaski are among the 13 Community Colleges and 27 Colleges of Applied Technology comprising the College System of Tennessee, governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR).

Lawrence County civic, government and business leaders first began planning for the center in 2014 with a goal of expanding educational opportunities for students to earn four-year degrees, and as Columbia State was outgrowing its Lawrence Campus, despite two prior expansions. Lawrence County and the City of Lawrenceburg contributed to the project, along with more than scores of local citizens, businesses, industries, and civic groups and organizations. In 2017, the state appropriated $4.6 million to the project, and construction began in 2018.

TBR Chancellor Flora W. Tydings joined Gov. Bill Lee, Columbia State President Janet Smith, Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham, Martin Methodist President Mark La Branche, University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd and Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Emily House in speaking at Friday’s Inaugural Ceremony of the center. All seven speakers, attired in academic regalia, thanked and congratulated the community for conceiving and planning the center, raising the bulk of the funds to build it, and seeing it through to Friday’s official opening of Phase 1.

“What happens here will profoundly impact our entire state because when people’s lives are changed, their families’ lives are changed for generations to come,” Gov. Lee said. “What’s going to happen in this building as a result of the collaboration among Tennessee Tech,  Martin Methodist, Columbia State, the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Board of Regents, is that lives will be changed.”

Chancellor Tydings said the center is a “tribute to this community. This was your vision from the start – and you transformed your vision into the reality that we’re here today to celebrate. And speaking on behalf of the Tennessee Board of Regents, we’re proud to be part of it.”

Tydings also used the occasion to present the College of the Year Cup to Columbia State President Janet Smith, prompting cheers from the crowd assembled on the back lawn of the beautiful collegiate-gothic-style building. Columbia State was named the College of the Year honor for 2021 at the College System’s Statewide Outstanding Achievement Recognition (SOAR) event, held virtually on March 25.

Chancellor Tydings presents College of the Year Cup to Columbia State President Janet Smith

In her remarks, Smith cited more than 40 years of partnership between Columbia State and Lawrence County for the benefit of the region’s students, starting with the evening college classes at the high school and expanding in 1988 when the community raised the money and built a dedicated new facility for the college – the first community-owned satellite campus of a community college in the state.

House said that the area’s commitment to education is underscored by Lawrence County’s high school graduation rate of 97 percent and college-going rate of 67 percent – both higher than statewide rates of 89 and 62 percent respectively.

Boyd, La Branche and Oldham all cited the willingness of the colleges and universities at the center to collaborate for the benefit of students. Oldham said that while the institutions are sometimes fiercely competitive, “the thing that binds us together is we are absolutely committed to our students and the people of Tennessee.”

The University of Tennessee will consider programs at the center if its planned acquisition of Martin Methodist in Pulaski as UT’s fourth undergraduate campus is completed.  Boyd, who served as the state’s commissioner of economic and community development prior to his appointment as UT president, said “Educational attainment equals economic attainment. All of us are here to work together as partners for you.” 

The center is located near the intersection of U.S. 64 and U.S 43, south of downtown Lawrenceburg.

The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 24 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 140,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.