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Tornado No Match for New Shaw University President

More than 500 Shaw University students were candidates for its Sunday graduation ceremony. However, more than 100 did not meet academic or financial requirements mainly because a tornado damaged much of the campus on April 16. Due to these disruptions, Shaw President Irma McClaurin allowed all of the graduation candidates to participate in the ceremony, stating that she knew how much it meant for students to take part in commencement. The students will receive their diplomas when they complete their work or pay outstanding bills.

It’s been an unusual spring for Shaw and its new president. When she was named the 15th president of Shaw seven months ago, McClaurin knew challenges lay ahead. But the high-energy Chicago native thrives on setting goals and accomplishing them. She wants the South’s oldest historically Black university, built in 1865, to raise its profile nationally as well as regionally. McClaurin has a long to-do list that includes increasing partnerships, such as the one between Shaw and the neighboring Southeast Raleigh community. She is an out-and-about president. In a short time, she has gotten to know faculty and staff, become acclimated to the community and tackled endless projects. She has even hosted President Barack Obama on campus.

Then came April 16. McClaurin was attending a charity event at a Raleigh restaurant when she received the news that the campus had been hit by a tornado. The storm uprooted trees, stripped the roof off the student union building and severely damaged two dormitories on the Shaw campus.

“Every roof on campus suffered some damage,” says McClaurin, sitting in her office, which now has water stains from the storm. After the storm, McClaurin says her first priority was providing security for the approximately 350 students who were on campus that weekend. The students had a short amount of time to gather a few belongings before taking a bus to an emergency shelter or going to stay with friends or relatives.

Then she called a 1 a.m. meeting with her cabinet and several trustees to make plans. “This could not be my Katrina,” she quips. There were just eight more days in the semester, so administrators decided to immediately cancel classes for the year. The decision did not violate any accreditation regulations. Students would be able to contact faculty regarding uncompleted work through their electronic accounts. 

In the next few weeks, McClaurin and her staff created and implemented their plans. Summer school will now be limited to non-residential students. They can have access to books through a new virtual book store.

Before coming to Shaw, McClaurin served as vice president for System Academic Administration at the University of Minnesota. Now her former employer insisted on sending its director of development services to Raleigh to provide consultation on building damage.

“The tornado damage has also forced us to look at doing some things differently, such as reconfiguring space,” she says.

The tornado also provided McClaurin with a perspective on the strong ties of alumni and friends to the university. Volunteers have gathered for campus clean-ups. The Shaw University Greater Atlanta Alumni Chapter held a disaster and student relief fund-raiser in April. Alumni have made donations on the web page. 

McClaurin points to a number of projects accomplished this year. Associate vice chancellor Robbie Melton headed a survey of best practices that the university can incorporate. Because 94 percent of Shaw’s students receive financial aid, helping students find money for college is integral. A large number of students are first-generation college students.

One of McClaurin’s goals is for the university to play a larger role in the community. An academic with the people’s touch, she genuinely enjoys meeting, greeting and networking. A key goal is to promote Shaw not only as a respected educational institution, but also as a good neighbor that cares about its community and city.

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