WHAT HAPPENS NOW AT SHAW? - As a Shaw University student intently listens, Shaw Board of Trustees Chairman Willie Gary assures those gathered Monday that the historically-black university will be "better than ever" in the aftermath of President Irma McClaurin's controversial departure last week. Gary announced that former interim President Dr. Dorothy C. Yancy will return in September to lead the school. [Cash Michaels Photo]
By Cash Michaels
With the Shaw Marching band in tow, attorney Willie Gary, chairman of Shaw University’s Trustee Board, told students Monday on the steps of the campus chapel that despite its problems, the beleaguered historically black university still offered them, “…one of the best educations you can get anywhere in this nation.”
Many would agree that the quality of instruction at Shaw is not at question, and never has been during the school’s 146-year history.
But throughout that same history, particularly in recent years, the quality of Shaw’s leadership at times, and its management of the school’s fiscal affairs, has raised disturbing questions about its stability and future.
Even Gary, a high-powered attorney and alumnus who gives GOD and Shaw University the glory in the same breath, admits that some of those questions are legitimate.
“I am not proud of the fact that we haven’t had, over the last two years, stability,” Chairman Gary told The Carolinian in an exclusive interview last week. “But you’re going to have some of these tough times. You can’t get around that.”
Getting “around that,” is one thing, supporters of the school say.
Properly managing the plethora of problems that haunt the South’s oldest historically black institution, is quite another.
The sudden “mutual” dismissal last week of Shaw’s 15th president, Dr. Irma McClaurin - the school’s third president in as many years - only further illustrated what many in the Shaw family say is a much needed top-to-bottom restructuring of leadership and purpose there.
Starting with the Trustee Board.
“The Board of Trustees must bear the brunt of this debacle,” wrote Julius H. Cromwell, Shaw Class of ’58, in a letter to the editor in The News and Observer August 12.
“They have lost the respect, confidence and trust of alumni, friends, donors and other supporters of the university,” Mr. Cromwell continued. “I venture to say that board members who are religious leaders and those who run their own businesses would dare not run their organizations the way they have governed Shaw University during the past 15 years.”
Even The News and Observer weighed in with an editorial titled “The ship of Shaw,” saying, “…the university is in serious need of strong, able leaders on its campus adjacent to Raleigh's downtown core…,” later adding that,” All those who value Shaw as a partner in the vineyards of higher education want to see good candidates step forward and wise decisions made.”
Many in the Shaw University family agree.
“We feel that the managerial problems that brought about this abrupt shift are the result of a systemic lack of oversight by the Board of Trustees and Human Resources,” wrote the Save Our Shaw Committee, a group of Shaw alums and former professors last week. “We believe that in the best interests of the University, these two entities should be restructured.”
The complaints aren’t just because of the embarrassing McClaurin episode.
It was May 28 of last year when The N&O reported that the head of Shaw’s national alumni association demanded that the board of trustees “step down or be dismissed” in light of allegations of, “…conflict of interest, fiduciary responsibilities, adverse interest and commitment.”
The problem? Many of the trustees, including Chairman Gary, had allegedly not followed through with their personal monetary commitments to the school, which was swimming in at least $20 million in red ink.
"We can no longer stand by and allow Shaw to appear to deteriorate due to poor judgment,” wrote then Shaw Alumni President Emily Perry in a May 14, 2010 letter to Chairman Gary.
"Now is the time for a new board of trustees that can effectively attend to the fiduciary responsibilities of Shaw," Perry's letter continued. "We cannot afford the continued mistrust, negative news media coverage, hostility, calls, faxes and letters."
But in an exclusive interview with The Carolinian last week, a day after Dr. McClaurin stepped down, Chairman Gary defended the school, and his board leadership, against any suggestions that a drastic change was needed.
“Well I think that’s flat out ridiculous, and you can print that,” Gary said by phone. “Shaw has been in existence for over a hundred years, and we’ve survived, and we’re going to survive for the next 100 years.”
The chairman continued that like any other business, Shaw has gone through “tough times” throughout its history. But Gary bristled at allegations of a conflict of interest leveled last week by WTVD-TV concerning his brother, Freddie Gary, who owns an insurance agency in Florida that has been doing business with the university for years.
“He has saved Shaw University thousands, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if you check his giving, he has given back the money he’s made in premiums in record numbers,” Gary insisted.
“A conflict of interest means you failed to disclose something,” the chairman continued. “My brother has been writing that insurance now for ten or fifteen years. He’s been giving to Shaw for ten or fifteen years. He’s been saving Shaw money for ten or fifteen years.”
“How are you going to have a conflict of interest with someone who is saving the university tons of dollars?” Gary continued. “Are you saying that because he is a black man that he shouldn’t be doing business with Shaw University?”
Gary also insisted that Shaw was not, “…behind in one single bill,” with alumni giving up, though overall fundraising is down.
“We take lemons at Shaw, and make lemonade,” Chairman Gary continued, adding that Shaw has more scholarly student-athletes graduating in the CIAA than any other school with at least an average 3.0 GPA.
And he was also quick to note the football, tennis and women’s basketball CIAA championships the school recently won.
“So I think Shaw University is doing a helluva job for the community,” Gary said, adding that this year will see the largest freshman class than ever before.
“We’re not perfect, but we’re not pitiful. We’re moving!”
In the interview, Gary confirmed, as The Carolinian exclusively reported last week, that Dr. McClaurin’s inability to raise significant funding during the course of her almost one year on the job “was a factor” in her dismissal (he also conformed that the trustee board terminated her contract), though Gary conceded that she had to deal with a “tough economy.”
Money not raised might not have been much of a factor if it weren’t for the large sums of money spent, sources say. McClaurin reportedly was earning $225,000-a-year on a five-year contract, plus travel expenses and a gated home owned by the school.
But Dr. McClaurin also spent thousands, and really raised eyebrows, reportedly, when she submitted a budget for her October installation ceremony in the neighborhood of over $330,000.
Former Shaw trustee Cornell Adams of New Jersey seemed to confirm that spending at the school in general, and McClaurin’s spending in particular, were key reasons why he left the board in July after serving three years.
That, plus McClaurin’s degenerating campus relations with students and faculty (who protested against her last April after she fired four veteran professors) - even after all of her hard work in making sure the Shaw campus was ready for students after last April’s devastating tornado damage - put the nail in her coffin just 11 months into her tenure.
Chairman Gary said that in the interest of Dr. McClaurin’s “mutual” agreement with the board, he would not go further in detail, other than to say that “For Shaw University, it was just not working out.”
But the chairman did not deny any of The Carolinian’s reporting on why McClaurin left.
On Monday to applause, Gary announced that Dr. Dorothy C. Yancey, the former interim president of Shaw from 2009 to 2010 preceding Dr. McClaurin’s arrival, would be coming out of retirement, and returning to lead the institution for the next two years. Yancy, widely respected for her leadership at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and ability to raise tons of money, worked to restructure $31 million of Shaw’s debt during her brief tenure.
“She loves Shaw University,” Gary told The Carolinian last week.
Gary also assured at Monday’s on-campus press conference that the case of the four Shaw professors who were fired by Dr. McClaurin last March, reportedly without cause, will get another look, and he hopes for a reasonable resolution.
“This is not a funeral,” Gary continuously said to the crowd Monday, adding that, “We’re doing better today than we have in the past five years.”
“This is a celebration.”