Dr. Rakes received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Milligan College, a master's degree in reading from East Tennessee State University and a doctorate in education from UT Knoxville. Before coming to UT Martin, he was interim president at University of Louisiana Monroe. He also received an honorary doctorate from Hirosaki University in 2010. He began his employment at Monroe in 1995 as dean and professor in the College of Education and Human Development. He also served as vice provost and dean for Graduate Studies and Research. He became UL Monroe provost and vice president for academic affairs in 2000. Rakes previously served as a University of Memphis professor and director of the Division of Research and Development in the College of Education. He also served as chair and professor in the Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership.

Rakes joined UT Martin in 2002 as vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of educational studies. He was named provost in 2005 and became the ninth UT Martin chancellor on July 1, 2007, and served in that capacity until June 1, 2015. During an eight-year interval, the University marked numerous milestones that include the highest level of student enrollment, the highest alumni and donor contribution level, and completion of an excess of $100 million in capital improvements and projects.

His first education position was in Johnson City, Tennessee, as a teacher and basketball coach. Rakes has compiled an extensive list of scholarly activities, including more than 160 refereed presentations and publications and 23 books and monographs. During his career Dr. Rakes has served as primary investigator for over $7 million in externally funded grants.

Since 1975 he has served on multiple professional and community boards as well as serving on national and regional accreditation review teams for both on on-site and external visits. Dr. Rakes has served as a management and communications consultant for multiple public and private corporate groups as well as developing partnerships with institutions in Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Germany. In 2016, he was inducted into the University of Tennessee Educators Hall of Honor in recognition of his accomplishments in the field of education.

Dr. Rakes currently teaches online graduate courses in reading, educational research, adult learning, and curriculum and instruction.