On November 20th Cheyney University administrators, alumni, HBCU advocates and activists heaved a huge sigh of relief as the venerable university, the oldest institution of higher learning for African-Americans in the nation, was granted a reprieve and given another year of accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Middle States rendered their decision following several years of investigations and reports after initially granting the university full accreditation with a few notable concerns in November of 2014. But revelations about rapidly declining enrollment, fiscal insolvency, NCAA probation and activist allegations the Commonwealth had shortchanged the university hundreds of millions in needed resources and kept incompetent administrators despite unsatisfactory evaluations by the school’s Council of Trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and students, forced Middle States to return to reevaluate the institution.
Middle States found numerous existential threats and asked the administration to address and remedy them to prevent the university’s accreditation from being withdrawn altogether. Middle States placed Cheyney on probation meaning it retained its accreditation but had two years to rectify the issues raised: acquiring permanent leadership, developing a fiscal sustainability plan, generating the resources sufficient for the university to accomplish its mission and IT concerns.
On November 20, Middles States commended the University and newly appointed permanent President Aaron Walton (the former interim president) on the progress he made but urged him to resolve the remaining challenges: developing a sustainable funding base, reducing debt and resolving the money Cheyney owes the US Department of Education for years of financial aid misreporting and mismanagement.
President Walton immediately informed the staff and alumni of Cheyney’s reprieve and indicated his immediate objective was to meet with the US Department of Education to get a handle on exactly how much is owed and negotiate ways and means to resolve this issue. On a national conference call to alumni on November 29th, President Walton shared that this process has begun and the US Department of Education is aware of the university’s progress and has extended the deadline for the university’s report.
Alumni and students are ecstatic about the Middle States notification but activists working to save the university recognize Cheyney is still not out of danger. Michael Coard an attorney, co-founder and spokesperson for Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a grassroots organization alleging massive underfunding and deliberate neglect by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), the PASSHE Board of Governors and US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan in October of 2014 is happy about the reprieve but maintains the Commonwealth has not really “forgiven” any debt because it owed Cheyney hundreds of millions for decades of deliberate underfunding and willful neglect.
The Heeding Cheyney’s Call 2014 federal lawsuit was one of several actions and lawsuits filed over the years by students (student demonstrations, boycotts and walk outs in 1967,68), faculty (a successful 1983 federal lawsuit) and interventions by the federal government (1969, 1983 and 1999) designed to shed light on and end the Commonwealth’s decades of underfunding and neglect. Despite these successful initiatives, the Commonwealth continued its pattern of discrimination and neglect.
In 1992 PASSHE Chancellor James H. McCormick appointed a commission (Commission on the Continued Vitality of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) to study the university and PASSHE’s responsibility to it. The Commission evaluated the physical plant, funding and finance operations, leadership, faculty and students and concluded: the physical plant was in major disrepair, Cheyney’s reputation and image had been badly damaged over the past decade, a new institutional governance model and structure were in order, a long term strategic plan was needed to eliminate the university’s deficit (which had been reduced from six million to one million when the Commission’s report was written) the academic program was in need of “dramatic and substantive revitalization”, and a systematic review and strategic plan were needed to chart a future course for the university’s sustainability and success. The report called for a massive infusion of capital and Commonwealth investment in Cheyney. Regrettably those conditions still plagued the institution until the present.
The recommended infusion of capital was not provided and the conditions outlined in the report were allowed to continue. But as a result of federal interventions (the most recent in 1999), the Commonwealth committed to refurbishing the buildings on the Quadrangle, creating the Keystone Honors Programs and improving funding for the Bond-Hill Scholarship Program. However as in the past, the Commonwealth reneged on its promises, forcing Heeding Cheyney’s Call to file a lawsuit in federal court in October of 2014. Attorney Joe Tucker an African-American civil rights and education specialist is the group’s lead litigator and strategist.
When Tom Wolf defeated Tom Corbett in the 2014 gubernatorial election, Wolf inherited the Heeding Cheyney’s Call lawsuit. Gov. Wolf indicated his willingness to negotiate and met personally with Heeding Cheyney’s Call in Harrisburg. Increased funds for the Bond-Hill Scholarship and Keystone Honors programs were promised and a commitment to Cheyney’s survival was given; but Cheyney subsequently had to address the outside threat of Middle States accreditation.
A partisan budget impasse prevented Governor Wolf from funding Cheyney at the levels he promised, but Wolf remains committed to saving the school. The Middle States reprieve is a huge relief, nevertheless Cheyney continues to struggle to survive and thrive. For now, Cheyney has weathered a major storm.