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Knoxville College Still in the Dark But Seeing Light

Knoxville College was knocked to the academic sidelines in 1996 after losing its accreditation over mounting financial and administrative problems.

But now it is poised for a comeback, says the unlikely “hero” who has been conducting triage on the school for nearly four years.

Plans are on track for enrollment to double this fall to nearly 200 students. A complete overhaul of the school’s curriculum is under way to focus on careers in energy and the environment. The school even plans to seek reaccredidation by year’s end.

The architect of Knoxville College’s attempt to rebound is not a college administrator with a proven track record. He’s not even a full-time employee or an alumnus of the school. Dr. Johnnie Cannon is a 33-year veteran employee of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory where he is chief scientist in the agency’s National Security Directorate. He ‘moonlights’ as chief operating officer at Knoxville College and does so on a volunteer basis.

“Things are pretty tough,” says Cannon, a 1970 graduate of Tuskegee University who earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Cal Tech. “But we’re making payroll and paying the bills we need to be paying.

“We have a plan (for accreditation) we’re going to present in about three months,” Cannon says.

He adds, however, that the college is not yet ready for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which he calls the “Rolls Royce” of accrediting agencies.

“We just need a Honda right now,” he says, explaining that the college is exploring several other accrediting bodies.


Today’s ambitious agenda at Knoxville College is a giant leap forward for a school that just a few years ago was only seeing its problems mount with no real plan for solving them. Its enrollment was nose-diving. Today it enrolls less than 100 students, compared to nearly 1,000 students in the 1970s.

Its physical plant was falling apart. It faced a lawsuit from its faculty seeking $800,000 in past due wages and Social Security payments. It sold assets to stay afloat, including a profitable gasoline station near the school that provided jobs for students.

It had also lost credibility and support among most alumni and local citizens of influence in the Knoxville community.

It was a call by interim president Robert Harvey to a friend at nearby Oak Ridge seeking help that eventually led him to Cannon and a turning point in the school’s fortunes. After some candid talks about the school’s situation, Cannon agreed in August 2005 to Harvey’s request to come on board for three months.

Cannon took the bull by the horns and has since been wrestling with Knoxville College’s problems quite methodically and successfully. As a result, he wound up staying much longer to help the college build its way back up from the bottom.

Internally, Cannon tackled the faculty lawsuit, working out an agreement for its resolution. He made some tough decisions about students who were not paying their bills, not participating in the school work-study program, and those who were misbehaving. He sent them home. He started asking tough accountability questions of the staff and students and insisted on a new sense of discipline in how the school functions.

In 2006, a group of alumni stepped forward to help the school too, asserting they would have to raise money to keeps its doors open or it would close. The 2006-2007 “Million Dollar Fundraising Campaign” raised nearly $900,000, including a $100,000 match from the Tom Joyner Morning Foundation.

The alumni association has since been giving money to the school each month and has just launched another fundraising campaign with the Jamaica Coffee Co. to sell coffee, with the school getting 40 percent of the proceeds.

Tom Joyner, the radio personality, has also stepped up to help Knoxville College. In addition to the $100,000 match for the alumni campaign, his foundation gave the school $250,000 in June 2008 to renovate a dormitory building and initiate a recruitment program (the school now has four recruiters).

In December, when Knoxville College was college of the month on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, 10 of its students got their tuition paid for the current semester by the Joyner Foundation. It has also pledged $250,000 more in assistance, payable this summer.

To meet it obligations of about $48,000 a week, the school also continues to receive about $250,000 a year in funding from the United Presbyterian Church, and participates in two state-funded programs for HBCUs in Tennessee, one administered by Meharry Medical College and the other by Tennessee State University.

Cannon, meanwhile, is working hard on recasting the school’s academic focus to one that is closely tied to 21st century needs — energy and the environment — and hopes the school can align its focus to compliment the vast opportunities at Oak Ridge.

“If he’d (Cannon) not been there, I suspect the school would not be functioning,” says Russell Sellars, a 1973 Knoxville College grad who helped spearhead the 2006-2007 fundraising effort. “ He (Cannon) was able to make the hard decisions. It’s a challenge (the college’s dilemma) that’s somewhat impossible but the school is still functioning.”

“If we can be pulled out of the water, we wouldn’t have a chance without him,” adds Harvey, who retired from Knoxville College in 1988 and is now serving his fourth stint (at no charge) as interim president of the school. “He’s (Cannon) not a lightweight. He couldn’t be any better.”

Cannon has also worked hard at repairing relations with the Knoxville community, from neighboring University of Tennessee and its Howard Baker Center for Public Policy to local business leaders whom he says are taking a renewed interest in the school.

As for the accolades, Cannon spreads them around. He credits the college’s growing base of volunteers, including its 17 alumni chapters, the Anglican church pastor who hopes to recruit 100 churches to sponsor 100 students set enrollment this fall, and the creditors and litigants who’ve agreed to give Cannon some room to try to help save the school — which still has $7 million in back debt to pay and an endowment of just over $1 million.

He’s also got the backing of the school’s trustees when hard decisions have had to be made.

“The community is now getting behind the college,” says Cannon. “There are more and more people who want to help. … I see myself as a change agent and I believe we can improve.”

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