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Martin Methodist College could become the fourth college in the public University of Tennessee system. The two institutions signed a nonbinding letter of intent Friday, a move toward the UT system acquiring the private college, contingent on approval from the Boards of Trustees at both institutions, the Tennessee state Legislature and the institutions' regional accreditors.

“Martin Methodist is in good shape, but the pandemic has accelerated conversations about the future across the higher-education system,” Mark La Branche, president of Martin Methodist, said in a press release. “The trustees and I had been talking about sustainability for a long time. When presented with the opportunity to expand the breadth and quality of our mission, the trustees were eager to explore.”

The acquisition would be the UT system’s first new campus in more than 50 years, following the addition of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1969.

Randy Boyd, president of the UT system, described the move as a “win-win-win,” in part for employees at Martin Methodist.

“As state employees, they’ll have better benefits, more job security and more sustainability,” Boyd said in a video that accompanied the press release.

Martin Methodist is a private liberal arts college founded in 1870. It enrolls about 900 students, almost all undergraduates. It's the only institution offering four-year and graduate degrees between Sewanee and Freed-Hardeman University, a 13-county Middle Tennessee region near the border with Alabama.

The UT system enrolls about 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students.