Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Talbert O. Shaw Retires after 15 Years at Shaw University

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Talbert O. Shaw Retires after 15 Years at Shaw University

Article excerpt


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. …

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