Tre Hargett’s visit to MTSU just more fuel for science facility

December 1, 2011 – DAILY NEWS JOURNAL, MURFREESBORO, TN – If and when MTSU gets a $126 million science building, the old Wiser-Patten and Davis science halls need to be preserved — for science experiments.

With labs in Wiser-Patten dating to 1932 and in Davis to 1969, there’s enough goo growing in there to hatch the missing link betweenWiser-PattenScienceBuildingPNG dinosaurs and birds, maybe a cure for some dreaded disease.

This is not a joke.  MTSU leaders have been saying for years that the university needs a new science building, and it’s been the No. 1 capital project for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for at least four years.

Numerous state legislators have toured the science buildings to see the need for new digs, and local legislators have begged Gov. Bill Haslam and former Gov. Phil Bredesen to put the building in their budgets.

The DNJ has run pictures of the outdated labs and rooms over the years and has backed its construction. But until you visit Wiser-Patten and Davis Science, you won’t understand the gravity of the situation.

It’s embarrassing and inexcusable for the largest undergraduate university in Tennessee to require students to take science classes in labs that look like they were dredged from the ocean floor a week ago.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who serves on the State Building Commission, toured the old science buildings last week with state Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna.

“I’m surprised at the lack of modernization available to the students at this facility, and this is the Tennessee Board of Regents’ largest school,” Hargett said.

The dismay on Hargett’s face was apparent as he walked through the crowded rooms as science department leaders showed him lab equipment that was corroded and filthy, obsolete, shut down, and, in some cases, dangerous.

Oddly enough, MTSU’s enrollment continues to grow, moving to 27,000. Wiser-Patten has 4,081 chemistry lab and 2,500 biology lab students a week while Davis Science Building labs have about 3,000 chemistry and biology students weekly.

But university officials say prospective science majors often run the other way when they see the labs.

MTSU Senior Vice President John Cothern

MTSU Senior Vice President John Cothern

“Quite frankly, they come from high schools that have better labs than we have,” said John Cothern, MTSU senior vice president.

That’s not a stretch. The labs in both Wiser-Patten and Davis Science are the original equipment, and even though stains from experiments are expected, this stuff is downright ridiculous. One lab in Wiser-Patten even had some of the ceiling fall out recently.

Science department officials told Hargett about one student who breathed too much gas and suffered health problems for a year after lab equipment malfunctioned.

The problem, of course, is money, or lack of it, and the sticker shock state legislators suffer when they see the dreaded $126 million figure for one building.

As Cothern points out, though, MTSU’s proposed science building will include biology and chemistry, putting two departments together, thus the big ticket.

The other problem is that the University of Tennessee system has four projects in the top seven, along with three community colleges, and UT commands big-time support statewide.

Legislators have discussed all sorts of mechanisms for funding the science building, including borrowing $300 million to knock out the top priorities; cutting costs; requiring MTSU to raise a large chunk of private money; and increasing student fees.

Look around MTSU’s campus and you’ll see numerous new buildings, so it’s not as if it has been complacent while its enrollment grew. But the science building has fallen into decay over the decades, even though we constantly hear the need to turn out more American scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

The General Assembly and governor’s office talk a good game each year about bolstering high education, but the truth is they’re providing less money, which forces students to pay more tuition to earn a diploma. MTSU’s tuition is up about 85 percent over the last decade.

Studies show students are graduating with more than $20,000 in student loans, even though Tennessee’s lottery scholarship program is providing about $4,000 annually for many of them.

This could give people cause to pause about the need to pour more money into capital projects for higher education. But anyone who visits MTSU’s old science buildings for a few minutes will come away wondering how they managed to fall into such decay.

In fact, they’ll be looking for the nearest antiseptic hand wash to wipe away stray germs. These buildings are unacceptable.

DNJ Senior Writer Sam Stockard can be reached at stockard@dnj.com or 615-278-5165.

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