Born in the Bahamas, Dr. Sidney A. McPhee had a humble beginning before moving to the US to equip himself with the tools he needed to become the man he is today. He came to America to get a good education and learned to grow in everything he did. He received the highest honors in his Bachelor’s degree and graduated from Prairie View A&M University in Texas, a master’s degree from the University of Miami, and a doctorate in applied behavioral studies in education from Oklahoma State University. He was selected to be the President of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in 2001, where he showcases his exceptional leadership and skills to better the learning environment of students at the university. Today, after 20+ years of service as the tenth President, McPhee has truly made his mark in educational circles in the US and worldwide.
Throughout his tenure at MTSU, McPhee traveled worldwide to establish international educational partnerships. He had opportunities to lecture and make presentations and friends in China, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Belgium, Canada, England, Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, and of course, back home in the Bahamas. “This experience has provided me with valuable opportunities to learn from various cultures and perspectives and how to adapt to various environments and situations,” he shares.
McPhee’s early education was in public schools in the Bahamas. The country’s geography includes over seven hundred islands and cays in addition to the capital Nassau, where he grew up. In total, the Bahamian islands extend over seven hundred miles. Yet, the community is a cohesive nation, referring to the outlying areas as “family islands.” Bahamians, in general, are friendly and outgoing. “Growing up in a large family and a country that in many ways sees itself as a big extended family has influenced my tendencies to reach out, connect with others, and create synergies. This perspective helped me lead the university through difficult situations like the pandemic by encouraging our students, faculty, and staff to not isolate themselves, but rather to view this time as rejuvenation,” McPhee says. “My educational journey also set me on a path of reaching across the globe to form international partnerships and recruit international students and faculty. I think it’s vital to know where you come from and how that connects with the world,” he adds.
As the President, McPhee has brought fame and fortune to MTSU. For four consecutive years, the Princeton Review identified MTSU among the best 13% of colleges in the United States. US News & World Report named the university a “Top Performer in Social Mobility,” while Newsweek recognized them as a Best Maker School for its innovative MakerSpace lab. The aerospace programs earned GradReports No.13 rank of their 25 Best Aviation Schools. SuccessfulStudent.org ranked the program’s unmanned aircraft system program No. 17 in the nation. College Choice recognized the College of Education among their top five Most Affordable Online Masters in English Language Learning. For the seventh consecutive year, Billboard magazine named MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment’s Recording Industry Management program a Best Music Business School in the U.S. These are just a few of the many rankings and recognitions that have contributed toward MTSU earning the reputation as Tennessee’s No.1-ranked public university for return on investment. “It’s also significant to recognize our substantial investments in our facilities and infrastructure at MTSU. I’ve been honored to preside over USD 1.5 billion in improvements, new construction, and major renovations during my presidency,” shares McPhee.
Leaders need to keep their ears to the ground in an ever-changing world. McPhee does this by dedicating time to catching up with the latest developments in the higher education space, inculcating those practices in the best way possible into the environment of MTSU. “I also walk the campus, visit with students, eat in our dining halls, and attend events here. I get energy from seeing first-hand the diverse and enriching experiences we provide at MTSU,” says McPhee. He also takes it upon himself to engage himself in the pulse of the diverse campus community. Being close to Nashville, the ‘Music City’ of the US, MTSU is fortunate to be surrounded by a vibrant music scene.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, MTSU, like all national and international higher education institutions, has been preparing for a “demographic cliff” with smaller numbers of 17- and 18-year-olds who would be traditional first-time, first-year students. At MTSU, the management is responding to these trends by offering dual enrollment and dual credit opportunities to high school students, providing them an accelerated path to earning their bachelor’s degrees. In the fall 2022 semester, MTSU enrolled over a thousand dual-enrollment students. This fast-track approach has a domino effect of positioning students to matriculate into advanced degree programs at an accelerated rate and earning post-baccalaureate degrees earlier in their academic careers.
The region was fortunate to have robust economic growth, which meant that graduates were in demand, thus creating better placements and demand for knowledgeable, highly skilled employees. The challenge lies in the decline in the number of citizens seeking postsecondary education of any kind due to the disruptive impact of the pandemic. Of course, this has the potential to negatively affect workforce development and lifetime earnings. In response to these economic growth opportunities and resulting employment demands, MTSU has created educational and professional development opportunities for the region’s workforce through which the university works with employers to understand their unique needs. Based on this input,custom-tailored academic programs are created to fulfill those needs. The university also allows students to translate their work experience into academic credits and has expanded its online programs to meet the needs of working adults. However, the university’s strategy doesn’t stop here. “We are actively collaborating with job creators and forecasters to predict workforce trends so we can prepare students for future jobs, ahead of the curve, before the need becomes a crisis,” explains McPhee.
McPhee strongly believes in the importance of really understanding one another. “That belief has guided my work in every job I’ve held, and that is what I set out to do on my first day at MTSU. I wanted to know the people who comprise this university, those who carried forward their ancestors’ work of building the larger community and the newcomers who helped it thrive and grow,” he explains.
Middle Tennessee State Normal School was founded in 1911 with a two-year academic program devoted to the education of teachers. In 1925, the school evolved into Middle Tennessee Normal College with a four-year degree program leading to a bachelor of science degree. The Tennessee General Assembly designated the institution a state college in 1943. In 1965, the institution advanced to university status.
MTSU embraces its role as a comprehensive, innovative institution whose distinctive bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, and doctoral programs prepare graduates to thrive within their chosen professions and changing global society. Students, faculty, and staff generate, preserve, and disseminate knowledge and collaboratively promote excellence through teaching, learning, research, creative activity, and public engagement.
“Our vision focuses on MTSU faculty, staff, and students working together as a community of scholars to create and share knowledge. We envision our efforts resulting in the highest quality education and student experience, preparing citizens who thrive as professionals and engage with and contribute to their communities,” McPhee says.
MTSU’s USD 147-million, three-building Science Corridor of Innovation represents the largest single investment by the State of Tennessee into an academic facility. The main 250,000-square-foot Science Building houses the Biology and Chemistry departments, providing a state-of-the-art laboratory and collaborative space for learning. In 2020, the university opened a new Academic Classroom Building that brought the Criminal Justice Administration, Psychology, and Sociology departments under one roof. This facility represents a USD 39.6 million investment that connects academic programs, minds, philosophies, and perspectives. Through this unique cross-disciplinary collaboration, MTSU is building an understanding of the needs and challenges that practitioners of each discipline will face as they enter the workforce. Equipped with this understanding, students will be better prepared and poised to offer solutions as they serve society.
With the pandemic’s lingering health and economic effects layered on top of the call for social justice, MTSU offers a pipeline for frontline workers to become expertly trained in these intersecting disciplines. “We know that human interaction is key to successfully addressing these issues facing humanity, and by removing physical barriers that impede collaboration, we help remove barriers in our wider society,” explained McPhee. The proximity that this building provides promotes exciting connections and transformative solutions that harness the collective intellectual energy of the students, faculty, and staff at MTSU.
MTSU just celebrated this fall a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of the new USD 40.1 million building to house the university’s School of Concrete and Construction Management (SCCM). This program is the first of its kind in the U.S. and still stands as one of only five such programs in the nation. “Our Concrete Industry Management and Construction programs were designed in response to dire workforce development needs. A key strength of the program is that the coursework combines necessary elements of both engineering and business management to produce graduates who are knowledgeable in both areas and therefore well-suited to progress high into corporate leadership,” shares McPhee. The employment rate for these majors approaches 100% every year, and the average starting salary of the graduates this year with a bachelor’s degree was over $63,000.
The new SCCM 54,000-square-foot facility includes a 200-seat lecture hall; a quartet of basic materials and building labs; a dedicated mechanical and electrical plumbing classroom; a covered amphitheater; and two computer labs, including a virtual design and construction lab that’s capable of creating advanced building models and construction simulations, as well as an augmented virtual reality lab for immersive experiences. This building is a sophisticated instructional tool, with educational elements deliberately and intelligently integrated into its design. Meanwhile, in 2023, McPhee said MTSU will begin construction of a new facility for its Applied Engineering program. “Both undergraduates and graduate students are
provided with opportunities to work alongside and learn from our world-renowned research faculty,” McPhee says.
Education Without Border
MTSU has 40 university partnerships in 17 countries and the largest enrollment of international students of any university in Tennessee. Comparing the numbers of international students from fall 2021 to fall 2022, applications (+34.14%) and admissions (+17.55%) have increased significantly.
MTSU’s USD 13.2 million funding raised from extramural sources, including USD 5.1 million in new research funding, was a pivotal contributing factor to the university’s recent elevation to an elite “R2” Doctoral University, High Research Activity status in the Carnegie classification of institutions of higher education.
“Securing funding sources is a challenge, particularly with economies experiencing inflation worldwide. Our model includes cultivating relationships to raise public/private funding,” McPhee says. The privately owned company Greenway Herbal Projects gave USD 2.5 million to promote MTSU’s medicinal plant research in the university’s Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research (TCMBR). While the Walter and Edith Loebenberg Foundation helped fund initial start-up costs.
Federal U.S. funding agencies also play a vital role. The United States Department of Agriculture has invested heavily in MTSU’s botanical medical research. The International Ginseng Institute at Middle Tennessee State University has received a total of USD 747,500 —including a USD 455,000 grant award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. These research funding agencies recognize the potential value that wild-cultivated ginseng crops represent with a market price that demands 10 to 25 times more per pound than field-grown ginseng. Wild-cultivated ginseng also yields significantly greater profits for farmers when compared to crops like corn.
Ahead on the horizon, MTSU is poised to open a state-of-the-art Aerospace Academy, thanks to USD 62.2 million in state funding designated to accommodate the explosive growth of the university’s Aerospace Department’s professional pilot program. The project includes constructing an 83,000-square-foot academic building and three hangar structures to serve as laboratory and support spaces in a world-class aviation academy. MTSU’s Aerospace Department grew out of World War II pilot training in the 1940s. Aerospace has grown into one of the most respected programs in the country. Twenty full-time faculty members, 100-plus flight instructors at the Flight Operations Center, and more than 1,200 majors place it among the largest of the nation’s collegiate aviation programs.
Four years ago, MTSU was among the first universities selected for Delta Air Lines’ Propel Collegiate Pilot Career Path program. Delta created this fast-track initiative to encourage qualified pro pilot majors to pursue a defined, accelerated path. The program allows candidates to earn their flight certifications, build their experience and meet all requirements to become a Delta pilot in 42 months or less. Colton Gray, an MTSU alumnus, made history as the first graduate of Delta’s Propel program. MTSU is in similar conversations with other American commercial air carriers to create pilot pathway program partnerships similar to Delta.
On the international front, a college in Jiangsu province approached MTSU to help China meet its demand for aerospace. China’s central government is expected to open general aviation space to private enterprises, creating a demand for aerospace facilities. Jiangsu officials anticipate as many as 500 airports will be built in the coming years — and more than 3,000 will open within a decade. It speaks to the international reputation of MTSU’s aerospace department to be selected as one of the first partners of this new college. The demand for expertly trained pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics, and unmanned aircraft system operators is at a historic high worldwide. MTSU continues to work with universities in countries around the world to form similar partnerships.
Holistic Learning and Development
To remain a viable option, higher education institutions must provide pathways and build bridges that ensure affordability and access. MTSU understands that ‘affordability’ means different things to different people. While a university education represents a substantial investment, finding the lowest overall cost that meets your specific objectives is important. MTSU is, very simply, the best higher education bargain in Tennessee. “Our combination of high-quality programs, student resources, incredible scholarship programs, and low tuition costs are unmatched in Tennessee. MTSU has the lowest tuition rate of any major university in the state, and we’ve expanded and increased our scholarships, redesigning general education programs and courses in the major to connect learning to professional development and civic engagement,” explains McPhee.
The results confirm the success of MTSU’s commitment to these priorities. In the fall 2022 semester, the university saw increases in retention for freshmen (75.7%, up 1.6%), undergraduate (82.5%, up 0.4%), and graduate students (86.3%, up 2.4%), trends that are especially encouraging as we emerge from the pandemic.” Our four-year graduation rates have more than doubled since launching Quest for Student Success, our series of academic strategic plans that began in 2013 and were recently updated. Six-year graduation rates have increased by ten percentage points,” reveals McPhee. In recognition of these positive results, MTSU was among 19 institutions selected as part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Student Success Equity Intensive funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to close achievement gaps.
“Our plans focus on a nimble, responsive approach that includes working with employers to fulfill their needs; expanding our online programs to meet the needs of working adults through our graduate programs; and collaborating with job creators and forecasters to predict workforce trends. We are preparing students for future jobs, ahead of the curve, before the need becomes a crisis,” shares McPhee.
Despite current challenges like inflation, population growth and economic development in Tennessee indicate a positive outlook for MTSU and Middle Tennessee’s higher education sector. The university plans to continually monitor workforce and community needs to inform degree offerings, course schedules, facilities and technologies, and public programming. “We will increase access to higher education through targeted recruitment of new and returning students of all ages and backgrounds; by expanding the types of in-person and virtual learning environments, we offer; and by keeping the cost of higher education within reach of students and their families through increased state support and external funding as well as scholarships,” says McPhee. “We continue to prioritize recruiting and retaining top-flight faculty and staff essential to moving MTSU forward. Lastly, we will ensure that our nationally recognized academic and student support services and our faculty and staff’s excellent teaching, mentoring, and advising benefit all students,” he adds.
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