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Cheyney University dropping sports in an attempt to strengthen academics and school

Oldest HBCU just celebrated the anniversary of its 1978 NCAA basketball championship

Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically black college or university (HBCU), is dropping its NCAA Division II status and will withdraw from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) by June 30.

Cheyney had been a member of PSAC, which consists of 18 full-time members from the state and competes as an NCAA Division II league, since its inception.

“This is a tough decision, but it’s one that we must make if we are to achieve financial sustainability,” said Cheyney University president Aaron A. Walton, who told the school’s trustees of the impending move on Tuesday. “We have to do what is best for the university for where we are right now, not where we’ve been.”

On Sunday, the school marked the 40th anniversary of winning the 1978 NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship with a gala rebroadcast of the game. Cheyney State College, the Wolves, defeated the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay 47-40 for its only national championship. Coached by Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer John Chaney, the Wolves finished the season 27-2.

“With the school being where it is today, my concern is for the students to have a good academics program and a good sports program,” said Roger “Bird” Leysath, a member of the Wolves’ NCAA championship team. “As an alumni, I’d like to see the school stay alive and lively. [This move] may be the best right now. It may allow the students to compete and the college to remain [viable].”

The downsizing of Cheyney athletics isn’t new. In December, the school suspended its football program after a 1-10 season. The program will remain suspended until the university’s financial situation improves.

Walton said Cheyney is looking to join another conference for men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball to develop a stronger, more sustainable program. For the 2018-19 school year, Cheyney’s teams will operate as independent.

An option for Cheyney could be the Middle Atlantic Conferences (MAC), a group of three athletic conferences that compete as NCAA Division III schools. Several Pennsylvania schools, such as Widener University, Swarthmore University and Delaware Valley University, are affiliated with the MAC, so traveling wouldn’t be too much of a hardship for Cheyney.

“Initially, I strongly opposed it as further diminishment of Cheyney’s overall status,” said Michael Coard, a Cheyney alumnus and attorney for Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a coalition devoted to saving the school. “But after thoroughly reviewing the cold, hard facts, I grudgingly came to the realization that it’s currently and hopefully temporarily necessary in order to reduce our suffocating debt and also to avoid the further destruction of the confidence of our school’s valiant athletes to continue to get crushed by teams with much better resources.”

Walton, who became Cheyney’s president last year, believes the move is in the school’s best interest.

“We’re doing what we must do for our school,” said Walton. “These are extremely difficult but necessary decisions that are being made on behalf of our entire student population, and to help ensure the university’s future. We want to continue to provide our student-athletes the opportunity to participate as part of the overall college experience.”

Declining enrollment, a low graduation rate and poor financial status have been factors with its accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Last November, Cheyney was granted another year of probation by Middle States. The school has been on probation since 2015 and was at risk of losing its accreditation. Without accreditation, Cheyney students would’ve been ineligible for state and federal tuition aid.

“The most important thing is the university,” said Robert W. Bogle, chairman of the Cheyney University Council of Trustees. “Cheyney University is too important. The president has made a very important decision with the success of Cheyney University in mind.”

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.