Austin Peay State University is located on an urban campus that for over 180 years has been used for educational purposes and on which the buildings of five colleges have stood:
- Rural Academy, 1806-1810
- Mt. Pleasant Academy, 1811-1824
- Clarksville Academy, 1825-1848
- Masonic College, 1849-1850
- Montgomery County Masonic College, 1851-1854
- Stewart College, 1855-1874
- Southwestern Presbyterian University, 1875-1925
- Austin Peay Normal School/State College/State University, 1927-present
The University began as Austin Peay Normal School when it was created as a two-year junior college and teacher-training institution by Act of the General Assembly of 1927 and named in honor of Governor Austin Peay, who was serving his third term of office when the school was established. Limited in purposes and resources initially, the school gradually grew in stature over the years to take its place among the colleges and universities under the control of the State Board of Education.
In 1939, the State Board of Education authorized the school to inaugurate a curriculum leading to the Bachelor of Science degree. The degree was first conferred on the graduating class at the 1942 Spring Convocation. By Act of the Tennessee Legislature of February 4, 1943, the name of the school was changed to Austin Peay State College. In 1951, the State Board authorized the College to confer the Bachelor of Arts degree and, in 1952, to offer graduate study leading to the degree of Master of Arts in Education. At the November 1966 meeting, the State Board of Education conferred university status on the College, effective September 1, 1967. In February 1967, the State Board of Education authorized the University to confer the Master of Arts and the Master of Science degrees. In 1968, associate degrees were approved. The State Board of Education relinquished its governance of higher education institutions to the Tennessee State Board of Regents in 1972.
In 1974, the Tennessee State Board of Regents authorized the Bachelor of Fine Arts and the Education Specialist Degrees. In 1979, the Bachelor of Business Administration degree was approved as a replacement for traditional B.A. and B.S. degrees in various fields of business. In 1979, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree was approved. In 1983, the Tennessee State Board of Regents approved the Master of Music degree, and Master Arts in Education. In 2001, the Tennessee State Board of Regents authorized the Bachelor of Professional Studies.
In the early morning hours of January 22, 1999, an F-4 tornado struck downtown Clarksville and the APSU campus. The Clement, Harned, Harvill and Archwood Buildings were severely damaged, while many others suffered broken windows and roof damage. Fortunately, no one was killed. Some 130 shattered trees littered the campus and added to the gloomy sight of shattered buildings. The University quickly initiated "Operation Restoration," with a commitment to have classes reopen within one week. Many heavily damaged buildings were re-opened within one year.
During its history, ten presidents and three acting presidents have served the institution:
- John S. Ziegler, 1929-1930
- Philander P. Claxton, 1930-1946
- Halbert Harvill, 1946-1962
- Earl E. Sexton (Acting), September - December 1962
- Joe Morgan, 1963-1976
- Robert O. Riggs, 1976-1987
- Oscar C. Page, 1988-1994
- Richard G. Rhoda (Interim), July - October 1994
- Sal D. Rinella, 1994-2000
- Sherry L. Hoppe (Interim), 2000-2001
- Sherry L. Hoppe, 2001-2007
- Timothy L. Hall, 2007-2014
- Alisa R. White, 2014-present