This week, Dr. Earl Yarbrough Sr. is finally occupying the seat he’s sought most of his professional life — the one belonging to a historically Black university president.
But it’s not the chair at Knoxville College in East Tennessee, where he was appointed president in December. Instead, he starts this week in the historic Georgia coastal town of Savannah, where he takes over at Savannah State University.
“I’ve had a goal back when I was doing my Ph.D. work that I’d like to lead an institution of higher education,” says Yarbrough. “I realized I wanted to head an HBCU. Those things came together for me.”
His beginning actually brings to an end a strange, six-month odyssey for Yarbrough and the two HBCUs. It started in December 2006, when Knoxville board of trustees tabbed Yarbough for the presidency.
“We are delighted to have Dr. Yarbrough as the president-elect of Knoxville College, and we are excited about the talent he brings to the college at this critical time,” said Knoxville board chairman Ronald Damper in the Dec. 2 release announcing the appointment.
“There are some challenges, but none so great that we cannot overcome together,” Yarbrough said in the same release. At the time, he was a Virginia State University professor and long-time collegiate administrator.
The challenges at Knoxville — a school that produced journalists Vernon Jarrett, Ralph Wiley and George Curry along with historic football coach Jake Gaither — have been many.
Financial problems led the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to strip the nearly 132-year-old institution of its accreditation. The move made it impossible for students to receive federal financial aid. As a result, enrollment plummeted. There had been more than 1,000 students on the campus before the accreditation decision. But the student population has been less than 200 each year since. A group of faculty members sued the school in 2005 claiming that they hadn’t been paid regularly. A group of students filed their own lawsuit alleging they had not been paid for their campus jobs.
Savannah State University has also been through its own trials and tribulations.
The university went through six presidents in 18 years, ending when Carlton Brown was named president in 1997.
But there were claims of financial mismanagement during Brown’s tenure. The school had to return more than $21,000 in Title III money to the U.S. Department of Education in 2002 when it was discovered that the money had been used for international travel. A 2006 audit also found some problems with how finances were being handled at the school. That same year, federal authorities charged Charles Jackson III, the former manager of the Savannah State bookstore, with embezzling nearly $200,000 in school funds. That case is still pending.
The school is now on NCAA probation until 2013 after being found to lack institutional control of the athletic department for the second time since 1998, this during the time when Savannah State was moving up from Division II athletics to the more prestigious Division I. Among the allegations: an assistant football coach was said to have promoted the use of anabolic steroids among players, but when football higher-ups heard the claims, they didn’t tell athletic administrators.
Brown’s tenure did see growth in student enrollment and other campus upgrades. But he suddenly stepped down in 2006, leaving Savannah State once again looking for a president.
At the same time, officials at Knoxville were struggling to find the resources to pay Yarbrough and the staff he would bring in.
Yarbrough says things eventually got to the point that he told Damper “if things didn’t change, I couldn’t come, and that was it. The college was trying to do as much as it could, and I was trying to help as much as I could. It was an awkward situation. I was just praying and hoping that something did happen.”
Damper and Yarbrough agreed that the president-elect could still keep his options open in case the Knoxville situation didn’t work out.
“I told him at the same time I wanted to be able to be free to look at other opportunities,” Yarbough says. A friend of his urged him to apply for the Savannah State opening.
Yarbrough eventually beat out two other finalists, both of whom had served as college presidents before.
“He’s a good man,” says Robert Booker, a Knoxville columnist, former city councilman and a dedicated Knoxville graduate who serves as a volunteer historian. “Everyone was excited about him, especially students. I wish we could have gotten him. I think we dropped the ball because we didn’t have the money to pay the man.”
Booker and others in the Knoxville community say the school has to do a better job of raising money — not only to pay a new president, but also to keep the school’s doors open this fall and in the future.
“It is a very difficult situation,” Yarbrough says of Knoxville’s fortunes. “My guess is it’s the most difficult time in the history of KC.”
As for Yarbrough, he says excited and optimistic about the future at Savannah State. He says he wants to focus on improvements in several areas, including the financial aid department, student retention and graduation rates and overall school financial management.
“Carlton Brown did a good job,” Yarbrough says. “But there are some questions of financial accountability, audits. Nothing really troubling, but we don’t want any financial inaccountability.
“I want us to be a total academic environment,” he continues. “I want to assess as many academic programs and enhance them as much as I can.”
Athletics will also face the microscope, he says. A committee has already been looking into the athletic department “and make sure we’re doing the right thing in terms of athletics.”
Yarbrough hasn’t forgotten Knoxville, though.
“My heart is there,” he says. “Hopefully things will turn around and we can do some joint ventures together.”
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