For many years, the pharmacists of the Northeast Tennessee and the Southern Appalachian Region had been encouraging East Tennessee State University to develop a pharmacy school. To the pharmacists practicing in this area, it seemed to be a natural fit since the university had a division of health sciences including a college of medicine, college of nursing, college of allied health and college of public health. The state's only pharmacy school, the University of Tennessee, was located in Memphis, over 550 miles away. Most of the students in this region were choosing to attend private schools or pay out-of-state tuition in order to stay close to home.
In 2004, a group of concerned citizens, including regional pharmacy leaders, approached the leadership of East Tennessee State University and Dr. Paul E. Stanton, Jr., president of the university, to once again consider the establishment of a college of pharmacy. Dr. Stanton developed a working group that was led by Dr. Ron Franks, who, at that time, was serving as both the dean of the college of medicine and the vice president for health affairs. Given the fact that the state's only public college of pharmacy was itself underfunded, it was obvious that to approach the legislature for the state of Tennessee to fund a second college of pharmacy would be impractical. This Steering Committee developed a model of a private college of pharmacy (funded through donations and tuition) that would reside in a state institution and become part of the Division of Health Sciences.
Governor Phil Bredesen challenged the citizens of Northeast Tennessee and the Southern Appalachian Region to raise $5 million in ninety days in order to show support of this initiative. The community raised $5 million in 58 days. That show of financial support and initiative resulted in the approval of the East Tennessee State University College of Pharmacy by the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in 2005. The primary donor for the college of pharmacy was Mr. Bill Gatton, a local automobile dealer with a history of supporting educational efforts. The college was named in honor of Mr. Gatton in 2007.