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Shaw U head takes leave as black college founders

RALEIGH -- RALEIGH -- Under President Clarence Newsome, Shaw University saw ballooning debt, decaying dormitories, everyday expenses paid on credit, and a graduation rate that hovers around 36 percent.

Conditions at the private school so disturbed alumni that in March, the Greensboro chapter stopped donating or raising money for their alma mater. This stance stayed in place until Wednesday, when Shaw announced Newsome would leave his post with a paid, one-year sabbatical. On Friday, the agency that accredited Shaw in 2002 said it will demand a plan for paying down the debt once a new president replaces Newsome.

"He lost his credibility with the students, the faculty and staff and the alumni," said Robert Caple, chairman of the Greensboro alumni group. "We knew something had to happen."

This unsettled environment will vex Newsome's successor and try the nerves of generations of Shaw supporters, who look to the campus as the mother of North Carolina's historically black schools. Shaw is the oldest such college in the South.

As a small institution with 2,750 students, Shaw breeds graduates with fierce loyalty and thanks for the doors it opened. This week, several staff members said they would work for free before leaving Shaw. Board of Trustees Chairman Willie Gary often tells of how he arrived from Florida with a suitcase strung together with rope, told by other institutions that he wasn't college material. Now's he's a lawyer prominent enough to have a private jet.

"Now I have lawyers working for me that graduated from Harvard, Yale and Princeton," he told a crowd Wednesday at Shaw's Spaulding Gymnasium. "Let's hear it for Shaw University!"

Newsome was out of town and could not be reached Friday. Gary, though, blamed Shaw's trouble both on the dire national economy and on low contributions from alumni. He called Shaw's debt reasonable for this economy, adding that all universities are stricken and facing cuts.

"It's not you didn't do so well," he said. "You've got to ask Chapel Hill. You've got to ask N.C. State. You've got to ask any university that. We've all just got to cut our costs. It ain't like the alumni was giving millions of dollars, either."

But the trouble surfaced as early as last fall, Caple recalled.

When alumni gathered for homecoming, he said, they noticed campus buildings in shabby shape. Then, Gary met with the heads of alumni chapters and explained that the school had fallen $27million behind, and that monthly expenses were getting paid with credit cards, Caple said.

"This is something that alumni have tried to address with the university for three years," Caple said. "We had gone several times, asked about the financial situation. Dr. Newsome and the board just wouldn't do it. Finally, we got a clearer picture."

Gary said his speech might have happened during the CIAA Tournament in February, but confirmed the substance of Caple's version.

Caple also described an administration under Newsome that kept information close. And when the alumni group cut financial help a few months ago, they posted their grievances online, addressed "to whomever concerned." Chief among them, Caple said, was the school's slack attitude toward fundraising. Newsome would not appear before Baptist State Convention meetings, an affiliate and long a mainstay for donations. A Greensboro minister approached the alumni about starting an endowed chair at Shaw, and when they passed this on to administrators, nobody got back to the minister after a year.

A charge to raise money

Newsome came to Shaw from Howard University in 2003, succeeding President Talbert O. Shaw, who was widely credited with forging the Baptist and Raleigh business connections that kept Shaw from closing its doors in the 1980s.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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