ETSU: 2017 in review

Johnson City Press • Dec 30, 2017 at 12:08 AM

2017 was a year of new leadership and new endeavors at East Tennessee State University. Here are some of the most notable events from the year:

Board of Trustees

ETSU gained more autonomy when its newly created Board of Trustees met March 24, separating it from decades of oversight by the Tennessee Board of Regents. The local governance boards created at all of the state’s four-year universities as part of the FOCUS Act, legislation pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam, were championed as local people making local decisions for their respective schools.
“This is not 1970, in which the solution to our problem would be to go to Nashville to lobby for more appropriations,” University President Brian Noland said. “Our ability to improve faculty and staff salaries, to attract more students to the institution, is going to be predicated on ETSU solutions to ETSU problems.”
At its first meeting, the trustees elected Scott Niswonger as chairman and Eastman’s David Golden as vice chairman. Through the year, the board considered a number of actions that will show up elsewhere on this list, from naming the new football stadium to dealing with accusations of fraud and abuse in the tennis program.

Performing arts center 

In September, after four years of fundraising, design work and proposals to the city, ETSU finally broke ground on a $53 million fine and performing arts center. Named the James C. and Mary B. Martin Center for the Arts, the new facility will have a 1,200-seat performance hall — for which Johnson City will pay $8 million — and will house performance and instructional space for university arts programs.

Last year, university administrators realized the construction costs for the planned arts center were 30 percent above budget, leading to some features being cut from the facility to lower the price. In May, the State Building Commission approved the finalized plans, giving the go-ahead to start construction. ETSU expects the facility will be completed by late 2019.

Football stadium 

We’ll have more on this one in Sunday’s Sports section, but since its completion in August, the William B. Greene Jr. stadium has re-enlivened parts of campus life that went dormant when the university suspended its football program. The new sports facility drove up fundraising and allowed new opportunities for students in sports and music programs.

For the first time in more than a decade, the university fielded a marching band on its campus turf. The on-campus games also brought the time-honored tradition of pre-game tailgating, and though celebrants faced rainy conditions, they turned out in force for hot dogs and pigskin.

Tennis coach 

Members of the campus community were taken by surprise when men’s tennis coach Yaser Zaatini abruptly resigned in March, but later accusations shocked them even more. In June, a university internal audit showed more than $106,000 of fraud and abuse allegations lodged at him for what Board of Trustees Vice Chairman David Golden called a “fairly sophisticated” scheme to forge athletes’ signatures on expenditure forms and print fake receipts for tennis racquet restringing services.

“It’s an audit that tells a story very different than the story that many of us have come to know about coach Zaatini over the course of our experience with him … but what we saw today is that appearances were not what they indicated in terms of what was happening behind the scenes,” university President Brian Noland said.

As part of his resignation, Zaatini agreed to pay the university $31,293.13, but made no admission of wrongdoing.
A state Comptroller’s investigation accused Zaatini of misappropriating at least $45,450 from the university. In November, he was indicted by a grand jury on charges of one county of theft over $10,000 and 22 counts of forgery.


Between the spring and fall commencements, more than 3,200 ETSU undergraduate and graduate students received degrees this year. In the spring, 12 graduated with 4.0 GPAs. In May, the university’s Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy saw 82 graduates walk across the stage, and 73 graduated from the Quillen College of Medicine, its largest class in history.


While students toiled away at their studies, researchers were hard at work at ETSU learning more about our world.
Just a few months ago, Drs. Darrell Moore and Thomas Jones, professors in the ETSU Department of Biological Sciences, discovered spider species that lived by the shortest circadian rhythms known on Earth.

By keeping orb-weaver spiders in the dark and tracking their movements with infrared light, they found some spiders had circadian rhythms between 17.4 and 19 hours, unexpected with Earth’s 24-hour solar day.

Doctoral candidate Alexis Decosimo and assistant professor Dr. Megan Quinn’s study of women infected with Ebola was published in the Journal of Social, Behavioral and Health Sciences. The two analyzed surveys recording the quality of life of women affected by Ebola during the epidemic in West Africa.

The researchers found that the negative experiences and stigma of people infected with Ebola led to higher levels of stress compared to women who were not infected.

Dr. Nick Hagemeir, an associated professor at the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, and Dr. Kelly Foster, an assistant professor in the university’s Sociology and Anthropology Department, hope their research will help curb the spread of hepatitis C and HIV, infections sometimes passed through intravenous drug use. They intend to interview pharmacists in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina about their syringe dispensing policies.

Pharmacies can only sell syringes upon proof of medical need, but the definition of “need” can sometimes differ between areas. Their research could lead to new needle exchange programs, or simply a better understanding of how needles are distributed in the three states.

Enrollment gains The university proudly announced enrollment gains in September driven by a large freshman class and more graduate students. 14,606 students enrolled for the fall semester, 324 more than the same semester the year before. 

“The enrollment increase reflects the efforts from everyone across campus to tell the ETSU story,” said Dr. Ramona Williams, vice provost for Enrollment Services. More than 2,000 new freshmen enrolled and the university’s retention rate was 76 percent, the highest rate in its history. The influx of students led to a housing shortage at the beginning of the year, and some students lived at hotels until space was made available for them.

Pharmacy school funding 

For the first time since the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy’s creation 11 years ago, ETSU plans to ask for state funding for the college. Created under then-President Paul Stanton, the pharmacy school’s funding model, based only on tuition it collected from students, was heralded as unprecedented.

Now, with changing market forces and competing with unmatchable tuition incentives offered by the University of Tennessee’s pharmacy school, current President Brian Noland will ask state officials to create a scholarship fund for in-state students to help lower tuition costs.

According to the proposal, the fund will cost about $2.5 million annually from the state. Noland will next take the plan to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the governor’s office in hopes the funding will be included in the coming year’s budget.

New ALS clinic

In April, ETSU officials announced the creation of the Gary Shealy ALS Clinic, a new gathering of medical professionals in Johnson City to help patients diagnosed with ALS by providing monthly visits with a team of respiratory therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, dietitians, social workers and pharmacists.

Faith Akin, whose husband died from the debilitating disease, was instrumental in creating the clinic in the ETSU Physicians building on State of Franklin Road, across from the Johnson City Medical Center. The center will provide a nearby place for ALS patients in the area and allow local doctors to better understand the disease and its effects.


After President Donald Trump’s administration announced the government would stop processing new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, members of the campus community mobilized in support of their fellow students, some of whom were immigrants brought to this country as children.

The move means 800,000 undocumented immigrants currently protected by the program, some of whom call ETSU home, could face deportation. Rallies in September and December called for the reinstatement of the DACA program or protection for its benefactors, and ETSU President Brian Noland said the school will assist DACA students in any way possible within legal boundaries.

“Just like their classmates, our DACA students have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations and are on the same journey toward realizing the goal of earning a college degree,” Noland wrote. “Supporting students along this journey is the heartbeat of our institutional mission.”

Homecoming evacuation 

A threat during an ETSU homecoming comedy event in October shut down the show and led security to evacuate the Minidome. During comedian D.C. Young Fly’s set, university officials said a credible threat was received suggesting “a potential for gun related activity” at the show. Some speculated the threat may have been related to the comedian’s references to President Donald Trump during the performance. After the evacuation, Fly posted on Twitter, “Ima always speak my mind but I also speak about peace and love ... yal just aint let me get to that part.”

Newspaper honors 

In November, The East Tennessean, the student-run campus newspaper of East Tennessee State University, brought home a Pinnacle Award, winning first place in the Best Breaking News Story for David Floyd’s and Alexia Stewart’s coverage of a student’s controversial interruption of a Black Lives Matter event in Borchuck Plaza. 

The Pinnacle Awards are a national competition held each year by the College Media Association,  to honor the best college media organizations and individual work. By winning, ETSU’s publication beat UCLA, the University at Buffalo and Ball State and West Virginia Universities.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos