The oldest historically black college and university in the country could be the first to fold.
After years of heartbreaking financial and enrollment trouble, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania is on the verge of collapse and in danger of losing its accreditation. The situation has sparked rallies, protests and an outpouring of sentiment and outrage from state senators, alumni and others.
“On the one hand, it’s tragic. On the flip side, this didn’t happen overnight,” said Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “While there were all sorts of other factors — including a bad economy in 2008 [and] state and federal funding that failed to help — this still reflects badly on the Cheyney board of trustees and the university’s president.”
Founded in 1837 as the nation’s first institution of higher learning for African-Americans, Cheyney represents more than just a place of learning, said Pennsylvania state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, who recently joined students and others at a rally for the school.
“Cheyney represents the struggle of being black in America, fighting to be recognized, speaking up to be supported, and a never-ending struggle to be treated equally,” Kinsey said.
A report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that although HBCUs only make up 3 percent of today’s colleges and universities, more than 20 percent of African-American college graduates attended an HBCU.
“For years, these historic institutions have produced amazing leaders that not only contribute to their respective fields, but who also pride themselves on their lifting while they climb attitudes,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania).
Cheyney has faced a myriad of financial struggles as funding to the school decreased and tuition rose. Since 2010, enrollment dropped 50 percent from over 1,500 students to an estimated 746. Since 2013, Cheyney has borrowed over $30.5 million to stay solvent and, if a solution isn’t formulated by Sept. 1, the university could lose its accreditation.
If that happens, students would no longer be eligible for federal aid, a devastating blow since nearly three-quarters of students are from low-income households and qualify for Pell Grants.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Cheyney trustee, said work continues to prevent the loss of accreditation.
“We’ve been working with the governor and others,” Hughes said. “I wish I can guarantee things, but I also can’t allow myself to think negatively.”
Notables Cheyney alumni include former “60 Minutes” journalist Ed Bradley, charismatic educator Marcus Foster, former Chicago Bears lineman James Williams, Emmy-winning anchorman Jim Vance, retired ambassador Joseph M. Segars and Philadelphia Tribune Publisher Robert Bogle.
“Cheyney University of Pennsylvania has been an important contributor to the education of African-Americans since before the Civil War, and the data shows that we need every HBCU in the country to continue their legacy of contributing to its education outcomes,” said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. “HBCUs continue to show their outsized impact, representing 3 percent of all two and four-year nonprofit colleges and universities, enrolling 10 percent of African-American undergraduates, producing 18 percent of all African-American bachelor’s degrees and generating 25 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields earned by African-Americans annually.”
State and federal governments, alumni, corporations, philanthropists, and others need to invest more heavily in institutions such as Cheyney University, he said.
JJ Abbott, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, said the governor “has been working closely with the state system and its board to create a path forward for Cheyney that allows it to build off its history, continue as a degree granting institution, and address its financial struggles.”
Pennsylvania Democratic state Rep. Jordan Harris, a member of a task force formed to redesign Cheney, said the university has been underfunded for years and without permanent leadership. That’s resulted in being told by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that Cheyney must show cause or lose its accreditation in September.
“The task force’s job is not to tell the university what to do, but to make recommendations,” Harris said. “I think Harris said Cheyney’s debt should be eliminated.
“For the past two years, the state system has provided a line of credit to Cheyney University to be sustained financially. The State System of Higher Education needs to forgive that debt immediately and put it on the state system’s books,” Harris said.
Cheyney’s standing remains tenuous in part because performance-based funding formulas resulted in repeated decreasing of funds and the State System of Higher Education took a hands-off approach despite observing ineffective leadership, said Junious R. Stanton, a past president of the Cheyney National Alumni Association and co-founder of Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a coalition of alumni and education advocates.
Stanton claims Pennsylvania has a long history of racial discrimination, neglect and underfunding regarding Cheyney, citing a successful federal lawsuit in 1983 brought by faculty and students which sought to remedy decades of systemic, willful neglect and discrimination.
“Even though they won the lawsuit outright, the settlement did not include monitoring or oversight — the Commonwealth soon returned to its former pattern,” Stanton said. “In 1999, the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights brought another suit and the Commonwealth entered into a Consent Decree agreement to provide funding, new programs and refurbish the campus. But again, over time, the Commonwealth reneged.”
Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a coalition of advocates for the university, filed another federal lawsuit in October 2014 to prevent a state-caused existential implosion, Stanton said.
“The new governor, Tom Wolf, inherited the lawsuit and once he was sworn in he indicated he was willing to negotiate to remedy the situation,” he said. “But a fiscal and budgetary crisis brought on by partisan infighting prevented the needed funding and programs from materializing.”