Will Knoxville College ever be back? New President Leonard Adams says yes and here’s how
The question has lingered for years from eager residents. Will Knoxville College ever get back to being an institution that educates hundreds of African American students, producing some of the greatest Black talent the city ever witnessed?
“The answer is yes,” new Interim President Leonard Adams says emphatically.
But Adams wants to set a realistic timeline, and it’s not short. He told Knox News he has a 10-year vision with short-term gains, and asks for patience from the community as he tries to revive the historically Black college in the heart of the Mechanicsville neighborhood near downtown.
“This is not an overnight fix, but my development experience tells me this is a 10-year initiative,” Adams said. “We are demanding cooperation and assistance from our local government and other institutions to get there. The more strategic partners we have, the quicker KC comes back.”
Adams is a Knoxville College graduate and the CEO and founder of Quest Community Development Organization, a Georgia-based nonprofit organization. As an entrepreneur with 25 years of experience, Adams has developed affordable-supportive housing communities. He started leading Knoxville College on Dec. 31.
Dasha Lundy, a Knox County commissioner, was named the college’s new chief operating officer and will work alongside Adams.
“I plan to spend a lot of time here and am working with my family and company to see what the best way is to have me in the saddle here in Knoxville as much as possible. It will not be a hindrance to my leadership,” Adams said.
Twenty-four years ago, the once-thriving historically Black institution, just a few miles from the University of Tennessee, lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Years and leadership changes have gone by but the campus is a ghost town.
What has not been lost is the support from Black residents and alumni who want to bring the campus on the hill back to life. They’re not giving up hope.
“Since 1988, when I first stepped on KC as a freshman, it changed my life. My HBCU made me who I am today,” Adams said. “I have a unique acumen vital for the success of Knoxville College redevelopment. I have solutions and am a champion for the underdog. KC is in that position right now and my goal is to change that.”
Adams sees Knoxville College as key to solving some of the systemic problems in the city’s Black communities. Roughly 17% of Knoxville’s population is Black, but according to 2019 Census figures, the city’s Black poverty rate is 31.4%, one of the highest figures in the region.
“Knoxville College is the catalyst for solving the Black poverty rate here. And our goal is to not only provide degrees but also create a workforce development model that will put our Black young people into the workforce quickly,” Adams said. “Right now we are in talks with Tennessee College of Applied Technology and the University of Tennessee on how we can partner to create robust job readiness.”
Historically Black colleges and universities, commonly called HBCUs for short, have been largely responsible for creating and maintaining the American Black middle class. Although they make up only 3% of four-year colleges, HBCUs have produced 27% of black STEM graduates, 80% of black judges and doctors, and 50% of black teachers.
Those statistics line up with occupational needs in Knoxville, and could help close the wealth gap and promote diversity.
Adams told Knox News that he intends to present quick and transparent solutions to the college’s revitalization.
“The reason and season I am here is to do just that. Knoxville College cannot afford to spin its wheels or wait to rebuild — we have to get it going right now,” Adams said. “As an aggressive leader and proven social entrepreneur, I am the man for the job.”
His 10-year vision will be reached one step at a time, with the college looking a little different with each stride.
“Within 18 to 24 months, we expect that to look like developing a new leadership pavilion, clean out these campus buildings and make it safer by partnering with local government. We want to offer career-based training and workforce development opportunities to engage people now. You will see activity by next year consisting of commuter students and customers and in three years this campus will look different,” Adams told Knox News.
“We have 32 students now in distance learning working toward an associate’s degree in general studies. By this fall, but no later than spring of 2022, our plan is to roll out a specialty catalog that offers other two-year programs. Within the next 90 days, those programs will be made available so that the public will know what KC will look like next fall in 2022.”
Accreditation is key
In the 1970s, Knoxville College began to experience the financial problems typical for many HBCUs. The school eventually lost accreditation in 1997, a devastating blow because the agency assures academic quality. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is one of the six regional accreditation organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education.
When institutions lose their accreditation, federal and state funding goes out the door with it.
Because most black students come from lower-income households, federal financial assistance and access to Pell scholarships are often the only way they can afford the rising cost of college. Knox College enrollment was down to 11 students in 2015, leading to the closure of the campus.
Financial problems were exacerbated by a toxic spill of chemicals stored in the science building. Knoxville College had hoped to reopen in 2016 but didn’t.
But accreditation can be achieved again.
African Americans are the largest recipients of need-based financial assistance in the country. Among full-time, full-year undergraduate students, 88 percent of Black students received grants in 2015–16. And more than two-thirds of all African American Pell grant recipients also took out student loans with an average debt of $7,200.
“Once federal and state money pulls out students, can’t pay for college So this is the key to bringing KC back,” Adams said.
“Accreditation is done by different bodies. We used to be (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) accredited but now we are going through a program called TRACS for that. TRACS is the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. We’ve got the application ready to go and have just a couple of modules left to meet the requirements. Those include demonstrating our campus plan for revitalization and getting our debt under control, proving that we can incur debt but also pay it off.”
TRACS, like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is a highly respected accrediting association recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. It’s the same agency that administrators at the historically Black Morris Brown College in Atlanta used to bring the school back after many years of non-accreditation.
“Once we have this piece in place it opens the door for Knoxville College to be a Tennessee Promise and Reconnect institution.”
Tennessee Promise provides Tennessee high school graduates the opportunity to attend a community or technical college without having to pay tuition and mandatory fees, while Tennessee Reconnect is a last-dollar grant for adults to earn an associate’s degree or technical certificate.
“We will have students back roaming this campus, earning bachelor’s degrees and training for jobs. We will establish KC as a city inside of a city that creates its own economics and sticks to our 3 E’s: To educate, empower and elevate.”