Armstrong Atlantic State University Savannah Georgia.

Savannah Morning News -  Contract Renewal Time for USG Presidets

By Walter Jones

As Savannah State University President Earl Yarbrough approaches his annual contract review in April by the Board of Regents, some alumni are calling for his replacement.

The yearly contracts of the presidents of all 35 public colleges come up for renewal at the same time, but Armstrong Atlantic State University President Linda Bleicken is not facing the same level of criticism.

A consultant hired by the University System of Georgia to review Yarbrough's performance gives him a positive report and notes that some alumni have been displeased with the five previous presidents as well.

"In my judgment, this deep schism will take years to resolve," wrote consultant David Brown, a retired college president and author of a book on college leadership.

Morris News requested copies of Brown's assessment and comments submitted by members of the public to the University System about Bleicken and Yarbrough. Because Bleicken has just been a college president since July 2009, her contract renewal isn't subject to an outside review, and she had no complaints in her file, according to Susan Herbst, the University System's executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer.

Yarbrough and Bleicken, and those presidents at the other 13 state universities, report to Herbst, who was just selected to be the next president of the University of Connecticut starting this summer.

"We here are pretty serious. We look at every complaint and every issue," she said.

Brown wrote a five-page report in December after conducting 83 interviews, with students, faculty, alumni, community leaders and university officials. He praised Yarbrough's efforts to improve the campus infrastructure and appearance, security, recreation and to build enrollment.

He said the next phase is to work on academic quality and fundraising, goals Yarbrough acknowledges.

Those are two areas the alumni seized on in their complaints. In a nine-page memo dated April 2010 to University System Chancellor Erroll Davis, four alumni listed various organizational lapses they say Yarbrough committed.

They say he had grown enrollment by lowering quality to the point where a large number of students, including athletes and a coach, wound up arrested for a range of crimes. They also accuse him of using poor judgment in appointing senior administrators.

Among the specific complaints are:

-- High crime rate on the campus.

-- Nearly half of all freshmen failed to advance to sophomores in 2009.

-- Too few academic majors offered

-- Various problems in the Athletic Department.

"Unfortunately, under the Yarbrough administration, Savannah State has seen a lack of leadership that has been harmful to the university," wrote "Concerned Alumni" which included Danny Parrish, Willie Walker, Alfred Berry Jr. and Lamar Rhodes.

Savannah State's president notes these four are not major contributors or experts on academic affairs.

"You must also understand that folks like this don't know what they're talking about," he said.

Part of the challenge, Yarbrough explains, is Savannah State's role as an "access institution" which is available to a wide range of students who may not get accepted to research universities like Georgia or Georgia Southern. As the research schools raise standards and turn away more students, the access schools gain more students who struggle.

That enrollment growth is what leads to added academic majors because there are more students to take those courses and to help cover the overhead cost of adding them, according to Yarbrough. The school just added an education major this month.

In the Athletic Department, he concedes a history of problems.

"We had no stability over there," he said, adding that he's promoted from within to get a new director who has demonstrated loyalty and will provide stability.

Yarbrough invites critics to walk around the campus before judging him. See the millions of dollars being invested in the football stadium, recreation fields, dorms and student diner.

"My first three years have basically been to build the pride," he said. Now he's ready to build donations and academic quality.

Across town at AASU, the challenges sound similar.

Bleicken would like to add academic majors, too, but doesn't expect to because of the economy. The school just gained approval to offer its first PhD program, in physical therapy, although it will be a while before the second one is started. And as Yarbrough has, she is seeking private funding for new dorms.

Her primary task, though, is to improve Armstrong's image just as Yarbrough is attempting to boost Savannah State's image.

"One of the things I picked up on early on is the image of Armstrong is sort of fuzzy," she said as the school celebrated its 75th anniversary. "Even here in the Savannah community a lot of people really didn't know what we were and what we're doing."

When a school's alumni don't buy into the image the president projects, it suggests how big the job is. And Yarbrough is facing a bigger hill to climb than Bleicken is, according to the comments in his personnel file.

In an interview, Savannah State alum Lamar Rhodes, a 2000 grad who practices law in Atlanta, conceded that Yarbrough is likable.

"He's a nice person. I just think as president, he's not up to the job," Rhodes said last month after an alumni meeting in Atlanta that Yarbrough attended.

Davis said he's not aware of an unusual number of complaints about Yarbrough.

"I get complaints about all of them all the time," he said.

Savannah State has traditionally gotten new presidents in the midst of a crisis, he said. Often, they immediately create enemies as they try to solve the crisis which prohibits them from having the opportunity to establish the relationships with students, faculty, alumni and the community in the kind of friendly atmosphere most college presidents enjoy.

"I think the leaders we have now are much more collegial than they have been in the past and understand community and constituent relations much more so," he said. "But there will always be friction."