Union University is an heir of three antebellum Tennessee schools—West Tennessee College and its predecessor, Jackson Male Academy, both located at Jackson, and of Union University, located at Murfreesboro—and it is the inheritor of another college in 1927, Hall-Moody Junior College of Martin, Tennessee.
Jackson Male Academy, founded in 1823 shortly after the opening of West Tennessee for settlement, was chartered by the legislature in 1825, making it the oldest school currently affiliated with Southern Baptist life.
West Tennessee College originated in the mid-1840s when supporters of the Academy secured a charter for a college and received an endowment from the state to come from the sale of public lands. Under its charter, the property rights and governance of the Jackson Male Academy were vested in the trustees of the College. The College offered three degrees— bachelor of arts, bachelor of philosophy, and master of arts— and had four departments: Moral Philosophy, Languages, Mathematics, and Natural Philosophy and Chemistry. West Tennessee College continued until 1874, when at a time of depressed economic conditions, the trustees offered the College’s buildings, grounds, and endowment to Tennessee Baptists in the hopes of attracting a southwestern regional university planned by the state’s Baptist leaders.
Meanwhile, after years of discussion and the raising of an endowment, the Baptists of Middle Tennessee (there were three separate conventions in Tennessee at that time) in 1848 established Union University at Murfreesboro, near the geographical center of the state. Union University came upon hard times when in 1859 its highly respected president, Dr. Eaton, died and when during the Civil War its campus was badly damaged. It reopened in 1868 only to close again in 1873, largely because of its financial condition and an epidemic of cholera.
Southwestern Baptist University, the immediate predecessor of the present Union University, originated because of a desire by Tennessee Baptists, who still had a separate convention for each of the state’s three Grand Divisions, for greater unification. Education became the core issue around which such unification was promoted. Committees of the three conventions met jointly in Humboldt in 1873 and issued a resolution supporting the establishment of a first-class regional university. An Educational Convention met in Murfreesboro in 1874, and following that a committee was appointed to select a location for the proposed university. The committee recommended the acceptance of the offer made by the citizens of Jackson to assume ownership of West Tennessee College.
In September 1874, the new institution opened at Jackson as an academy, and in 1875 it was chartered as Southwestern Baptist University. In 1907, Dr. T. T. Eaton, a trustee at Southwestern from its beginning, bequeathed his 6,000 volume library to the college. He was a former professor at Union University at Murfreesboro, where his father, Dr. Joseph H. Eaton, had been president. Shortly thereafter the name of Southwestern Baptist University was changed to Union University to honor the Eatons and others from Union at Murfreesboro who had made a major impact on Southwestern as faculty, administrators, trustees, and contributors. In a further move to unify its educational efforts, the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 1925 secured a new charter which vested all rights, authority, and property of Union University in the Convention, including the election of the University’s trustees. Two years later, the Convention was able to consolidate Hall-Moody Junior College at Martin (1900-1927) with Union University. During the 1920s, Union discontinued its graduate program, its Law Department, and its high school and added a bachelor of music degree program.
After a major fire in 1912, several new buildings were constructed, including the centerpiece of the campus for the next 60 years, Barton Hall. In 1948 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted Union University its original accreditation. In 1962, at the request of local physicians, Union developed a nursing program with the assistance of Jackson-Madison County General Hospital.
Because of an aging and landlocked campus, Union, in 1975, moved from near downtown to a new campus located along Highway 45-Bypass in north Jackson. During the administrations of President Robert Craig (1967-85) and President Hyran Barefoot (1987-1996), enrollment increased from less than 1,000 students to over 2,000; the multipurpose Penick Academic Complex was enlarged several times; many additional housing units were erected; and the Blasingame Academic Complex (1986) and the Hyran E. Barefoot Student Union Building (1994) were constructed. From the early 1950’s to the early 1970’s, Union operated an Extension Center in the Memphis area. From 1987-95, Union offered the degree completion program leading to the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN track) in Memphis. There were over 300 graduates of this program.
When David S. Dockery was elected as the fifteenth president of Union University in December 1995, he brought with him a compelling vision to build on a great tradition while taking Union to the next level of regional and national prominence in Christian higher education. The progress that has been made during this time has been remarkable: annual non-duplicating headcount increased from 2200 (in 1996) to more than 4200 (in 2009); significantly increased giving to Union, including sixteen of the largest commitments in Union history; instituted three five-year strategic plans; completed construction of two residence halls, the Miller Tower, Jennings Hall, Hammons Hall, the Fesmire athletic facilities, White Hall, the Carl Grant Events Center, and new residence life facilities; launched the $110 million comprehensive “Building a Future” campaign; renewed commitment to scholarship and research among Union faculty as a part of the establishment of the Center for Faculty Development; added new undergraduate majors in political science, physics, theology, digital media studies, church history, ethics, sports management, sports medicine, engineering; and graduate programs in education (M.Ed., Ed.S., and Ed.D.), nursing (MSN with tracks in education, administration, and nurse anesthesia), and intercultural studies (MAIS); SACS Level VI accreditation was achieved; programs were added in undergraduate research; began LIFE group programs, student retention programs, student mission involvement, giftedness assessment program for freshman students; established an extension campus in Germantown, TN, which now has almost 800 students; established the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship; established the Charles Colson Chair for Faith and Culture and Stephen Olford Chair of Expository Preaching; established highly successful annual Scholarship Banquet; and achieved top tier recognition in U.S. News and World Report and other important listings.
In many respects, Union University is in the strongest position in its history. For example, the University has enjoyed steady enrollment growth for a number of years, as indicated below:
Another indicator of the University’s health and vitality is the growth in the number of students completing programs at
Union. As indicated below, this past year almost 1000 students graduated from Union, a 149% increase over the 96-97 school year:
Key enrollment and financial indicators are monitored by University officials regularly to determine trends and to provide data for critical decision-making and analysis, including: