A Brief History of the University of Tennessee

August 29, 2022

exterior view of ayres hall at the university of tennessee in knoxville

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville has a rich history that spans more than two centuries. Dating back to 1794, UTK has undergone many changes and expansions, and it remains one of the top public universities in the country. Learn more about important milestones! 

Early Years (1794–1860)

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville was founded in 1794 as Blount College, named after the governor of Tennessee, William Blount. It was the first higher education institution west of the Appalachian Mountains and only the second public university in the United States. The university’s first class consisted of just three students, but it quickly grew to enroll more than 100 students by 1800.

In 1806, the university was temporarily closed due to financial difficulties, but it reopened in 1809 and continued to grow. In 1839, the Tennessee legislature passed a law that allowed for the admission of women into the university for the first time, and by 1860, UTK had more than 700 students enrolled.

The Civil War and Reconstruction (1861–1879)

UTK was closed during the Civil War, as many of its students and faculty members enlisted in the Confederate Army. In 1862, Union troops occupied Knoxville and burned several campus buildings, including the main library. After the war, UTK reopened in 1866 but struggled financially.

University of Tennessee Modernizes (1880–1918)

In 1879, the university was renamed the University of Tennessee and began to modernize its curriculum. In the following year, UTK became the first university in the South to offer a four-year medical program. The university also soon established the Agricultural Experiment Station, now known as the Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service. During this time, the university also experienced rapid enrollment growth. By 1918, UTK had more than 12,000 students enrolled, making it one of the largest universities in the country.

The University of Tennessee Today (1919–Present)

In 1919, UTK established its graduate school, and in 1925, the university opened its first hospital — UT Memorial Hospital. In 1932, the university launched WUTK, the first student-run radio station in the South.

The university has continued to grow and evolve over the past century. Fast-forward to today, UTK is home to more than 33,000 students from around the nation and more than 100 countries. The university offers more than 370 undergraduate and 547 graduate programs of study, and also is one of the top research universities in the country.

UTK has been shaped as a comprehensive public research university serving the state of Tennessee for more than 200 years. As the university looks to the future, it will continue to build on its rich history and tradition of excellence.

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