Bethune-Cookman University has sued the alumni association that for decades has raised money and supported the school.
B-CU is demanding the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune National Alumni Association stop using the university’s name, logos and trademarks — as well as its founder’s name. The suit alleges the alumni group has nonetheless infringed on those trademarks and “falsely represents that it is associated with the university.”
Johnny McCray Jr., the association’s president who was also personally named in the suit, called it “unnecessary and unfortunate,” and said its members have voted to carry on, raising money for students who attend B-CU and other institutions.
The university’s lawsuit follows a Sept. 1 vote by the B-CU Board of Trustees to disassociate from the alumni group in favor of starting their own direct-support organization. The university, which is preparing for a 10-year accreditation review, cited a “need to have control and oversight over its fundraising activities.”
Later that month, the National Alumni Association of Bethune-Cookman University Inc., changed its name to the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune National Alumni Association, Florida Department of State records show. The organization claims 21 chapters across the United States and in the Bahamas.
The university pointed to “publicly disparaging remarks” about B-CU and its trustees by McCray. In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Orlando, B-CU alleges the association has not filed an IRS Form 990 since 2016, causing it to lose its tax-exempt status.
That allegation is not true, said La-Vaughn Starks, the alumni association treasurer. She said the alumni have filed IRS forms for 2019 and 2020. The form that wasn’t filed in 2016 happened under a previous administration led by then-President Jennifer Adams, who’s a university trustee.
“I’ve been president of this association for 18 months. We have not had any financial issues,” McCray said. “In fact, we are working assiduously to clear up much of the mess that started during (the Adams) administration.”
He also said it’s not true that the alumni association has lost its tax-exempt status.
University officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, other than providing an emailed comment from spokeswoman Sara Brady that the suit “speaks for itself.”
Accreditation steers B-CU to start support organization
The university since 2005 has held the trademark “Bethune-Cookman,” the name with which the school has been associated since 1926. It also owns the service mark “Florida Classic,” associated with the annual football contest in which it competes with Florida A&M University in Orlando, as well as two logos.
Bethune-Cookman, in the lawsuit, notes that it is accredited with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and losing that accreditation would harm the school including losing access to federal student loans and grants, as well other funding sources.
SACS has revised its standards to more stringently require institutions “exercise sufficient direction and control over the fundraising activities of institution-related entities,” the suit states.
B-CU has, this year, created its own direct-support organization, as many other universities — including the University of Florida and Florida State University — have done.
Alumni Association leaders, namely McCray, have “a history of publicly disparaging the university and its Board of Trustees.” The lawsuit cites an opinion piece written by McCray and published in the St. Augustine Record, questioning the reason for former President Brent Chrite’s departure last year, and sharing that the alumni had voted “no confidence” in the leadership of the Board of Trustees.
Who owns Bethune’s name?
The university, its lawyers argue, is “inextricably associated” with its founder, Bethune. The alumni association’s use of the Bethune name as part of its name violates its cease and desist demand, as it creates a “false impression” that the former alumni association is associated with the university.
Additionally, the university alleges the association has continued to use its name and logos on its website, in emails and in other materials. The alumni association’s logo includes a collage of images, including Bethune’s face, the university’s marching band, the on-campus statue of its founder and other campus landmarks.
“The former alumni association’s intentional unauthorized commercial use of the university’s marks has deceived and is likely to deceive donors and the relevant consuming public into believing, mistakenly, that the former alumni association’s services originate from, are associated or affiliated with, or are otherwise authorized by the university, which they are not,” the suit sttes.
B-CU is alleging:
- Trademark infringement
- False designation of origin
- Dilution by blurring
The university is seeking “corrective advertising for informing consumers and donors of its unauthorized use of the university’s marks and lack of affiliation with” the school, its full costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.”
McCray called the case “baseless,” considering the steps the association has already taken with regard to the school’s wishes.
“We immediately changed the name of our association, but that wasn’t good enough,” McCray said. “I sent out emails that we were not going to fight this. I explained to the members the intellectual trademarks they don’t want us to use, and we’re going to do it, but it takes time for a 90-year-old organization to dismantle things that have been in place for many years.”
McCray said he repeatedly offered to sit down with university officials and come to an understanding without going to court. Those offers were refused, he said.
“This is all a direct result of the leadership trying to dismantle and discredit the national alumni association,” he said. “It’s a sad day. We’ve done so much for the school in recent months and recent years.”
McCray said his organization raised nearly $300,000 for the school during a 90-day campaign last year. Alumni raised $116,000 for the Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, and McCray said he personally contributed $25,000.
“Dr. Bethune started this school with five little girls and $1.50. She knew scholarships would be needed to send young students to school,” he said. “The national alumni association has developed a new mission where we are going to support individuals who want to seek an education. That won’t be limited to just Bethune-Cookman students.”