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Knoxville College Awaiting Arrival of New President — Three Months After Job Offer

Is he or isn’t he really coming?

That’s the question floating around Knoxville College, a historically Black institution in East Tennessee whose on-going struggles seem to include getting a new president.

School officials enthusiastically announced in December the selection of Dr. Earl Yarbrough Sr., a Virginia State University professor and long-time collegiate administrator, as their new president.

But nearly three months later, Yarbrough hasn’t been seen around campus much and alumni are wondering if he’s actually coming. School officials have said very little about Yarbrough’s status.

“I really don’t know,” says Robert J. Booker, a local newspaper columnist and KC alumnus who spends three days a week volunteering on campus. “People have been asking me about that too.”

It’s just the latest saga for a school with a proud past, though it has struggled over the years.

KC’s long list of prestigious graduates includes such luminaries as historic football coach Jake Gaither, journalist and former quarterback George Curry and late author and journalist Ralph Wiley. Noted author and lecturer Dr. Michael Eric Dyson also attended the college.

But ever since the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools yanked KC’s accreditation in 1996 because of poor finances and other issues, the school has struggled to survive.

Trustees hired Dr. Barbara R. Hatton, a former president at South Carolina State University, to run the school in 1997. Hatton struggled to make ends meet as the school, without accreditation, wasn’t able to offer federal financial aid for students.

Some help did come during Hatton’s tenure. The Tom Joyner Foundation has assisted with fundraising and contributions, as have other organizations.

KC officials also remade the college into a “work college,” for students whose employers would pay off their tuition.

But even those efforts couldn’t help the school turn the corner.

Student enrollment, which had been over 1,100 in the early 1990s, is only about 200 today.

Faculty complained about Hatton’s style, which many thought was abrasive. Eventually, students began complaining, too. Finances also continued to suffer.

Hatton’s tenure came to a strange end when the school’s board of trustees fired her in 2005. But instead of packing up, Hatton locked herself in her office. Campus security eventually had to demand that she leave campus.

Since then, the school has been run by interim president Robert Harvey, a 1946 alum who had worked at the school in various capacities until he retired in 1988.

Harvey says Yarbrough will be at KC to replace him full time. He just doesn’t know when.

“Dr. Yarbrough signed a contract [in January], but he’s been out more than he’s been in,” Harvey says. “He’s been here, but he hasn’t been here on a permanent basis yet. He has a couple of projects he has to finish at Virginia State.”

Harvey says Yarbrough also has to assemble a senior staff.

“It’s a complicated process, bringing a president to a college,” he says.

According to Booker, rumors persist around town that school officials are struggling to find the money to actually get Yarbrough.

So far, Yarbrough has said nothing. Ronald Dampier, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, didn’t return phone calls for comment this week.

But Yarbrough will face a daunting task, if and when he arrives on campus.

According to Harvey and Booker, the reeling school has at least $5.5 million in long-term debt.

“The situation here is really not good,” Booker says. “We have real financial troubles. Money — we just don’t have any. We’ve just been poor at fundraising. That’s why we don’t have accreditation — no money.”

Booker wrote a column in the Knoxville News Sentinel last week mourning the fact that alums haven’t been contributing funds to help the 131-year-old school survive.

“I lament the fact that alumni really are not stepping up to the plate,” he says. “That would help.”

As for Yarbrough’s arrival, Booker says no matter who takes over, they’ll have a tough job ahead of them.

“We’ve held it together for the last 18 months, largely with a volunteer force,” Booker says. “But it’s going to take much more than that. It’s going to take a permanent person with vision to turn this place around. But to get there, we’ve got to do more than stay afloat.”

–Add Seymour Jr.

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