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Talbert O. Shaw Retires After 15 Years at Shaw University

Talbert O. Shaw Retires After 15 Years at Shaw University
By Eleanor Lee Yates


At a time when some historically Black colleges are making headlines for financial mismanagement and woes, Shaw University’s outgoing president is being remembered for daring to take the reins of a financially troubled institution and turn those troubles into opportunities.

“Those were tough times for the university,” Dr. Talbert O. Shaw recalls. “The school was on the verge of closing. Employees had not been paid.”

In 1986, the Internal Revenue Service had filed two liens against the university. The university owed $750,000 to the IRS for unpaid withholding taxes, interest and penalties. It had defaulted on loans totaling $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education used in part for two new dormitories in the 1960s. The school also owed the federal government about $500,000 for student-aid funds that had been used inappropriately. The university had no endowment and owed close to $5 million.

“Banks wouldn’t honor checks. It was very grim,” says Shaw, a native of Jamaica, who earned a bachelor’s from Andrews University in Michigan and a master’s and doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Enrollment had dwindled and many of the venerable buildings were in disrepair, some actually boarded up.

The woes had been gradual. Many say leadership was not strong enough. Others say alumni did not give enough. Add to that the typical struggles of a small, private college.

Why would a university administrator take on such troubles? Shaw always loved a challenge. And there was the striking coincidence with the name, Shaw, although no relation. There was the rich history. Shaw University is one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the South, founded in 1865 by a former Union Army chaplain from New England to teach free slaves to be ministers and teachers. Originally established as the Raleigh Institute, the school was renamed in 1870 to honor its chief benefactor, Elijah Shaw.

When offered the presidency in 1987, Shaw said yes. Fifteen years later, upon his retirement, he is credited with spearheading the university’s turnaround.

“He dared to take the job back when the school was about to be padlocked. He already had a wonderful job and didn’t have to worry about problems,” says Dr. Thomas Boyd, a member of the board of trustees, a 1942 graduate of the school and a Baptist minister in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Boyd firmly believes it was the Good Lord who sent Shaw to Shaw.

“Dr. Shaw was progressive and hardworking,” Boyd says. “He has wonderful public relations skills. He knew how to win influential friends for Shaw. He was able to reach people in high places with money and turn this school around.”

President Shaw sought money from the General Baptist State Convention, with which the college is affiliated. He worked with Black-owned banks to restructure debts. He initiated a tuition payment system that meant students paid more regularly.

When stories appeared in the Raleigh newspaper with negative quotes suggesting the school should be closed — the university is located on 30 acres of prime downtown land — Shaw invited the publisher to lunch and wooed a $100,000 gift from him to help the school.

He took to fund raising with a passion, calling on alumni and area business executives. He joined the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and other civic groups. One of the criticisms Shaw heard was that the university had isolated itself from the downtown business community.

The university’s financial situation gradually improved. Shaw and his staff proved to two national banks that the school was more productive, resulting in major gifts. The university paid off its debts.

In the early 1990s the university undertook a capital campaign, “Wings for the Future.” The campaign surpassed the $25 million goal three years early, thanks primarily to a $10 million gift from alumnus Willie Gary, a 1971 graduate and a Florida attorney. Gary now serves as chairman of the board of trustees. The campaign helped to raise the school’s local and national profile and established an endowment of $12 million.

Enrollment was 1,600 in 1987 and has now climbed to 2,700. The number of employees has doubled, from 300 to 600. The number of faculty has increased from 60 full-time professors to 96. Faculty with doctorates has increased from 52 percent to 70 percent. Academics improved. Much to the surprise of some students, they were required to take character education classes on ethics and values.

“There’s a moral drift in our nation,” Shaw says. “We have to take corrective measures.”

Major technology upgrades were instituted with help in part from $2 million from Microsoft, CISCO and Lilly Foundations and from the United Negro College Fund.

As for the down-on-its-heels campus, few would argue with the improvements. The Roberts Science Hall was renovated largely through a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Historic Estey Hall, a former dormitory for women left unused for 20 years, was renovated. The renovation for Leonard Hall, once the old medical school, was completed in 2000. In 1996, a five-story teacher education complex named the Talbert O. Shaw Living Learning Center opened its doors — the most ambitious building project to date.

Shaw spent much of his fund-raising time on the road. “Shaw Days” were held at Baptist churches within the state and around the country, with the Shaw choir often going along. The trips always resulted in donations. During Shaw Days at the Brooklyn, N.Y., church where Boyd was minister, the congregation pledged $250,000 to renovate Shaw’s chapel in their minister’s honor.

The return of football to Shaw last year after a 23-year absence was popular with alumni. Shaw enters the CIAA conference this year. By most accounts, Shaw is popular with students and alumni. Some professors, however, complain about the absence of tenure. Though discontinued before Shaw arrived, he and his cabinet never reinstated it. In a statement, Shaw says: “We are not against tenure at Shaw University, however, the board (of trustees) had some overriding policy issues that were not addressed during my tenure that will need to be addressed prior to its reinstatement.”

“I think my successor is finding the campus in a better situation,” he adds. That, most alumni would say, is an understatement. Shaw has some goals he hopes the next president will champion, including a fine arts center and a health/wellness center.

Shaw and his wife, Marlene, a retired middle school principal, will retire to Boca Raton, Fla.

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