December 5, 2011 – DAILY NEWS JOURNAL, MURFREESBORO, TN – Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett expressed concerns Thursday about space shortages and outdated equipment in MTSU’s science facilities as officials lobbied him for construction of a $126 million building.
“I certainly hope we can find a way to fund the building (next fiscal year). I don’t think there’s any doubting the need. Now, for us, it’s how we get it done,” said Hargett, who serves on the State Building Commission, which oversees the construction of state buildings. The funding decision would be up to the governor and state Legislature.
After a tour with university officials and state Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, Hargett said he was most concerned about overcrowding in the 1930s-era Wiser-Patten Science Building, which had a total of 481 lab students in 2011, and the late-’60s Davis Science Building, which had 941 lab students this year.
“If we expect our best and brightest to stay in Tennessee and improve our graduation rates, we’ve got to have the facilities to keep them in school,” Hargett said.
The former legislator said he was “surprised at the lack of modernization available to the students at this facility and this is the Tennessee Board of Regents’ largest school.”
The proposed science building, which is No. 1 on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s building list, has been termed “the big cork in the bottle,” because once it’s funded the state can move on other smaller projects. It has been at the top of the list for at least four years but has been delayed by lack of funding.
During the tour, they looked at filthy labs, corroded fume hoods that had to be shut down and some classroom areas where the ceiling was falling out. Even incubators were stored in a hall.
“Everything’s make-shift. We’ve gotten pretty good at improvising,” said George Murphy, chairman of the Biology Department.
Thomas Cheatham, dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences, and Earl Pierce, chairman of the Chemistry Department, told Hargett that most equipment is serviceable when it works, but they explained that one student breathed in gas during an equipment malfunction and wound up having physical problems for a year.
John Cothern, MTSU senior vice president, told Hargett the university has trouble admitting and keeping science majors because of the decrepit conditions.
“Quite frankly, they come from high schools that have better labs than we have,” Cothern said.
He pointed out that even though the $126 million figure sounds high, it will provide space for two departments, chemistry and biology.
Gov. Bill Haslam asked the Board of Regents and University of Tennessee system in October to study capital projects scheduled for the next five years to determine priorities to meet the goals of The Complete College Tennessee Act.
MTSU President Sidney McPhee, who was out of town Thursday, has said he believes the science building falls in line with the Complete College Tennessee Act, which was designed to produce more college graduates.
Hargett also noted Thursday that a new science building would fall in line with the act.
Funding sources from four areas have been considered:
1) university development and fundraising,
2) a 3 percent student fee,
3) bond funds left in the Finance and Administration budget at the end of the fiscal year, and
4) bond debt.
Lawmakers floated a strategy last year to fund a combination of $300 million in higher education projects in order to persuade the governor and the General Assembly to put MTSU’s science building in the budget.
Behind the MTSU science building on THEC’s capital projects list are:
•University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Strong Hall addition and renovation, $52.5 million;
•University of Tennessee-Knoxville, academic building-number 1, $55 million;
•UT Health Science Center, Humphreys General Education Building addition, $21.1 million;
•Southwest Community College, nursing and biotechnology facility phase 2, $9.2 million;
•Nashville Community College, new academic and support building, $20.4 million;
•Northeast Community College, technical education complex, $35.2 million;
•University of Tennessee-Knoxville, audiology & speech pathology/psychology clinic, $31 million.
Legislators have also discussed asking the state to provide $90 million to $95 million and require MTSU to come up with the other $30 million to $36 million through private fundraising.
McPhee has said he would not favor that because MTSU doesn’t have the resources to raise that much money.