The end of Tennessee Temple in Chattanooga

The end of Tennessee Temple in Chattanooga

University seeks new life as it leaves state, merges with college in North Carolina

March 3rd, 2015 by Kevin Hardy and Alex Green in Local Regional News

Tennessee Temple University junior Liz Miller, left, speaks to sophomores Deisy Najarro, Michael Briggs and Kimberly Warden at the Lee Roberson Center on Monday about what is required to transfer to another school

Tennessee Temple University junior Liz Miller, left, speaks...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: How do you feel about Tennessee Temple closing?

Tennessee Temple University is moving -- not across town to Woodland Park Baptist Church, as planned a year ago, but 300 miles away, to merge with Piedmont International University, a private Christian college in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Temple's 15-member board of trustees is expected to approve a vote on the issue today. Trustees at Piedmont unanimously approved the merger Monday.

Students have the option to move to Piedmont with assured admittance and continue their education at a discounted price, but the merger effectively means that come May 1, Tennessee Temple University will no longer exist.

Students talked Monday about how they would cope with the change, whether it's transferring to another local college or going to North Carolina. Athletes today make up a little more than half of Temple's enrollment, and most students come from Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

"I invested two years and have to go somewhere else," said sophomore Kristin Pankey. "My credits may not transfer -- that's what a lot of people are worried about."

But after months of worries and rumors, third-year student Corey Lester said he's just happy to finally know the school's fate.

"We have been walking through a season of uncertainty as the student body," he said. "A lot of us are relieved that there's some certainty now."

Temple is calling it quits in Chattanooga after decades of dwindling enrollment and several failed efforts at breathing new life into the 70-year-old school.

"I guess a lot of people are going to say 'Oh, they closed,'" said President Steve Echols on Monday. "But there is a huge difference in closing and merging."

Echols said that Temple, like many small Christian colleges today, struggles to stay in the black. The school is also saddled with a dilapidated, 21-acre campus in the urban core of Chattanooga.

"It just wasn't possible, really, to keep that facility going," he said.

The boarded-up buildings and perimeter fencing are a far cry from Temple's heyday, when it was one of the largest Christian universities in the country, boasting more than 4,000 students in the early 1980s. At that time, the adjoining Highland Park Baptist Church -- pastored by then-Temple Chancellor Lee Roberson -- had more than 57,000 members on the books.

The late Roberson, a well-known evangelist, led the church and school for more than 40 years, from 1942 to 1983. Together, Temple and Highland Park were bastions of evangelical Christianity, once at the center of the Independent Baptist movement.

But Temple today is a shadow of its former self.

Enrollment dropped by 3,000 students between 1980 and 1991, according to newspaper archives, and today the school's on-campus enrollment is about 265, plus a few hundred online students.

Still, school officials have refused to give up on Temple.

In 2005, then-President Danny Lovett, fresh at the helm, hired new administrators and committed to ease up on the school's strict student dress code.

"Most people in the city thought Temple may be over, but that's not true," he said a decade ago. "We're watching God rebuild this university to its glory days."

But despite those efforts, things didn't get much better.

In 2012, Highland Park Baptist Church moved to Harrison and renamed itself Church of the Highlands. That same year, Echols, a staunch Southern Baptist, was brought on to lead Temple, and ostensibly strengthen the school's ties to the Southern Baptist Convention.

Though much of the school's problems existed when he arrived, Echols said Monday that some people blame him for the most recent troubles, which include neighbors angry in 2013 over a new perimeter fence and run-down buildings.

Dr. Steven Echols, President of Tennessee Temple University

Dr. Steven Echols, President of Tennessee Temple University

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

But Echols received praise when, last year, he and leaders at Woodland Park Baptist revealed a plan to partner and unite under one roof at the church's Tyner campus.

It was billed as a solution for both institutions.

Temple wanted to get out from under its Highland Park campus, and Woodland Park, saddled with debt and an unfinished church, was happy to have the school's financial support. Temple would pay $600,000 for the church's property, and the church would use that money to finish its building.

In May 2014, more than 90 percent of Woodland Park members voted in favor of partnering with Temple.

But a contract on some of the school's Highland Park properties fell through. Anticipated donations of $2 million never materialized. Less than 1 percent of 17,000 alumni members responded to a fundraising campaign, which accumulated only $65,000. Altogether, that made the move to Woodland Park impossible, Echols said.

"You would think at least one thing would come through," Echols said.

Woodland Park officials did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

But even with the Woodland Park partnership off the table, Temple had to do something. The university had already sold most of its Highland Park campus and in a matter of months would be essentially homeless.

Redemption Point Church has bought up many Temple properties, where it will start a ministry school to train missionaries, pastors and worship leaders.

"I think it provides an opportunity for [Temple] to sort of start all over in a sense," said Redemption Point Pastor Kevin Wallace. "And I think it provides the community an opportunity to have a new school there."

Redemption Point, which has formed a satellite church in the old Highland Park Baptist Church, will spend the coming months renovating Temple buildings for its school. Wallace said he hopes his church will breathe new life into Highland Park.

"We're going to open the gates of the campus itself so the community can come through the campus," he said.

Temple will officially merge with Piedmont after the spring semester ends on April 30. Echols said he plans to take on an administrative role at Piedmont.

He framed the merger as the beginning of new possibilities for both schools. He said Temple's legacy lives on in its people.

"All earthly institutions eventually fade," he said Monday. "They dissolve. But changed lives are forever."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.


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