Thank You Governor Wolf

by Junious Stanton

On Monday, November 25th the Middle States Commission on Higher Education reaffirmed the full accreditation of Cheyney University. This means the university is in good standing with the regional accreditation agency and Middle States is satisfied the university is making strides to fulfill its mission, remain fiscally viable and the leadership has a plan to repay its debts to the US Department of Education and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education of which it is a part.

photo courtesy of Tlm Wolf.

Much of the credit for the turnaround and Middle States decision goes to Governor Tom Wolf. When Wolf was inaugurated as governor in 2015 he inherited the Commonwealth’s status as a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by alumni, students and higher education advocates on behalf of Cheyney University. The lawsuit was filed in October of 2014 a few weeks prior to the general election by an organization called Heeding Cheyney’s Call. Heeding Cheyney’s Call was joined by the Cheyney University National Alumni Association and several dozen Cheyney students who signed on as plaintiffs.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, HCC negotiated for ten months with representatives from Governor Tom Corbett’s administration to no avail. During that time Heeding Cheyney’s Call was vigorously supported by: Ms Wendella Fox the head of the Philadelphia  Office of Civil Rights for the US Department of Education, State Senator Vincent Hughes, Representative James Roebuck, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus under the energetic leadership of Representative Vanessa Lowery Brown and her successors Representatives Jordan Harris and Stephen Kinsey, the Philadelphia Congressional delegation of Chaka Fattah, Bob Brady and Dwight Evans as well as US Senator Bob Casey. Philadelphia Councilpersons Jannie Blackwell, David Oh and Derek Green were also extremely supportive.

The Corbett administration remained recalcitrant refusing to commit to resolving the long standing issues of violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as decades of egregious underfunding, willful neglect and reneging on agreements between the Commonwealth and the federal government. Due to the impasse, Heeding Cheyney’s Call filed a federal lawsuit in October of 2014.

Several weeks later, Corbett lost his bid for re-election to Tom Wolf. After Governor Wolf was sworn in in January 2015, the case was fast tracked on the federal court docket, pre-trial conferences and motions were heard by the judge and by the next year both parties were preparing for depositions to be scheduled.

When Governor Wolf was briefed, he and his chief counsel Denise Smyler offered to meet with the Heeding Cheyney’s Call legal and negotiating teams. Governor Wolf subsequently decided litigation was counterproductive. He asked Joe Tucker the lead counsel for the plaintiffs if he would be willing to set the lawsuit aside and attempt to work out a solution. Tucker agreed and Heeding Cheyney’s Call began working with the Wolf administration to resolve the critical issues plaguing Cheyney: effective and stable governance, adequate funding, debt and fiscal problems.

Despite a budget impasse, partisan bickering and gridlock Governor Tom Wolf promised Cheyney would not close during his administration, that he would commit additional resources to the school and PASSHE. To his credit Wolf fulfilled his pledge to improve education throughout the state from Kindergarten through higher education.

Unlike his predecessor, Governor Wolf and his staff personally met with Heeding Cheyney’s Call and began a constructive dialogue. Wolf recognized the Commonwealth’s role in Cheyney’s woes and worked to help resolve some of the severest issues despite being locked in a partisan budget struggle for six months.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education whose offices are located in Philadelphia, heard about Cheyney’s fiscal woes, requested supplemental information and sent a new team to ascertain whether or not Cheyney could remain viable and fulfill its mission. Upon review of the data, Middle States concluded the university needed monitoring. The university maintained its accreditation but had to periodically meet with Middle States evaluation teams to demonstrate it had the wherewithal to keep its accreditation.

In February 2017 the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors commissioned a Task Force charged with rebranding the university, implementing a new operational model to assure the university’s viability, fiscal sustainability and crafting a twenty-first century mission. The Task Force’s Report was released and ultimately accepted. PASSHE Board of Governor member and Task Force Co-Chair Aaron Walton was sent to Cheyney as president.

President Walton accepted the challenge of changing the culture, implementing fiscal solvency, professional accountability and operational efficiency as the foundation of the university’s new design.  After granting two extensions Middle States reaffirmed Cheyney’s accreditation on November 25, 2019.

The active support and involvement of Governor Tom Wolf, who made the critical decisions to negotiate rather than litigate, commit additional resources to Cheyney University and to keep his word the university would not close on his watch; had a lot to do with the decision. Thank you Governor Tom Wolf.