When the University of Memphis Almost Became the University of Tennessee



photo from 1951 "DeSoto" yearbook

Well, the big news lately is that the University of Memphis is now a member of the Big East, so that should make Tiger fans happy — for a while.

But over the years, it seems the university has always strived to be part of greater things, and one of the strangest incidents in its 100-year history took place back in 1951, when Memphis State College — as it was called at the time — almost became the University of Tennessee. "MSC" would have changed to "UTAM" — which just sounds odd to me.

The whole story is told in the school's 1951 DeSoto yearbook, and for some reason the editors chose to illustrate this section with the curious photo shown here — students pushing a broken-down jalopy through the entrace gates. I suppose it's some kind of symbolism that escapes me, at the moment. At any rate, here's how they described the whole fiasco:

"Legislators Prevent University" was the headline, and the yearbook story went like this: "Efforts of educators and civic leaders to elevate MSC to university status met sudden death on the Senate floor of the Tennessee legislature.

"The proposal began in Shelby County by the work of civic leaders and the college administrators. The plan was to incorporate MCS in the University of Tennessee ... and called for three colleges: Business Administration, Education, and Liberal Arts. On November 6th, a special UT faculty committee visited the state campus and 'approved in principle the idea of inaugurating Memphis State into the UT system.'

"The proposal was supported by Mayor Rowlett Payne and Senator T. Robert Acklin, as well as the Memphis branch of the UT alumni association. The Board of Trustees of the university at Knoxville, as well as Dr. C.E. Brehm, president, gave their full approval. 'Making Memphis State College a part of the University of Tennessee involves no changes in the organizational set-up in the colleges at Knoxville or the medical units at Memphis or other parts of the university,' said Brehm.

Not everyone agreed, obviously.

"The major opposition came from East Tennessee political factions. The civic organizations of Knoxville were able to sway the vote against the Shelby County delegation. As the MSC student body listened to the proceedings, they heard almost three years' work die in 15 minutes of political argument on the Senate floor."

So what happened? The yearbook named several scapegoats. Among them: former UT president Dr. Hoskins (they didn't even give his first name), who begged legislators, "Please don't split my school," and UT Trustee Sam McAlister, who argued that the plan would "weaken the parent university at Knoxville." He didn't explain how, exactly, it would do that.

Those seem like pretty lame excuses to me, but the legislators voted it down, and Memphis State remained Memphis State, though it did finally attain university status without the help of UT. Looking back on it, maybe it was for the better. It was never clear if Memphis State would have been placed on an equal footing with UT-Knoxville, or if the school here would have been more like UT-Martin or UT-Chattanooga — a "little brother" to the big guy in Knoxville

Anyway, I thought I'd share that with you. Sometimes old yearbooks tell you more than the name of the homecoming queen or the football team's wins and losses.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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