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.
During its history, eight 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 - present