Shaw University alumni have filed a federal lawsuit against Board Chairman Joseph Bell Jr. and past chairman Willie Gary, alleging breach of contract, conflict of interest and years of mismanagement that have tarnished the South’s oldest historically black college.
In the suit filed on Oct. 29, Shaw Alumni and Friends, Inc., charges that Bell’s and Gary’s close relatives have been awarded generous amounts of work at Shaw.
Documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service show Gary Financial, owned by the past chairman’s brother, was paid nearly $2 million in 2010 and 2011, the suit said. Shaw has also employed BellKlean Cleaning Service, owned by the chairman’s son, during construction and demolition work, according to the lawsuit.
Both Bell and Gary are obligated to protect the value of students’ degrees and act in Shaw’s best interest, according to the lawsuit.
“The last 20 years have instead been littered by rumors of closure, publicly reported financial crisis, low enrollment, scandal and self-dealing,” the suit said. “Defendants have monopolized leadership of the Board of Trustees and breached their contract to the students, alumni and the faculty of Shaw University.”
Neither Bell nor Gary could not be reached Monday. A woman who answered at Bell’s home in Georgia Monday hung up the telephone. Staff at Gary’s law office in Florida said they had not seen the lawsuit. Shaw Public Relations Director Odessa Hines said the university had no comment because it is not named as a party in the suit.
Opened in 1865, Shaw has struggled financially and faced public criticism in recent years. In the suit, Shaw alumni note the university has seen five presidents in the past 10 years, and in 2010, it was paying four of them. A search for Shaw’s president in 2014 frustrated alumni when eight months passed without a permanent choice. Fifty alumni sent a letter to Shaw calling the process a “charade.”
Tashni Dubroy took the presidency in June, the third woman and second-youngest person to hold that office, pledging to boost funds and business partnerships. During her announcement at Shaw, roughly a dozen protesters handed out leaflets calling for Bell to resign, criticizing what they described as Dubroy’s inexperience and special scholarships given to students from Bell’s hometown.
In the lawsuit, alumni allege that unfunded “Joe Bell” scholarships total nearly $1 million over the last 11 years, going to students who keep a 2.5 grade-point average, most of them from Savannah. Other scholarships have been cut during Dubroy’s tenure so far.
The suit notes that Shaw students filed a short video on YouTube criticizing the fairness of these scholarships. In the video, students say the grants have no application process and are awarded by meeting Bell in his office.
Alumni Carol Holloway, Emily Perry and Eugene Myrick are named as plaintiffs in the suit, filed by Washington, D.C., attorney Christopher M. Young, who is a Shaw alumnus. The plaintiffs ask for damages in excess of $75,000.