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Future of Cheyney University, nation’s oldest HBCU, hangs in the balance

Pennsylvania school faces accreditation, enrollment and financial issues as school year begins

These are perilous times for Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Rumors persist that the nation’s oldest historically black college is about to close or merge with another school.

The Board of Governors of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) on Tuesday took actions to help Cheyney University secure continued accreditation. The board approved a plan to forgive more than $30 million in loans once Cheyney reaches certain operational goals. The board also approved a limited policy exemption that will help Cheyney balance its budget while ensuring students are able to earn their degrees even if certain programs are discontinued.

Cheney, one of 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), must submit an operating plan to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education by Sept. 1 demonstrating why its accreditation should be continued. The plan must include a balanced budget that matches revenue with expenses.

Recently, a report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems examined Cheyney and the 13 other schools in PASSHE. The report by the Boulder, Colorado-based consulting group hired by PASSHE recommended no closures or mergers.

According to Richard J. Pokrass, director for communications and public relations for the commission, the report and the results of an evaluation team’s visit to Cheyney’s campus will be reviewed sometime in the fall by the commission’s Committee on Follow-up Reports. The committee will issue its recommendations to the full commission on Nov. 16.

But Cheyney, which had an enrollment of 711 students in the spring, isn’t safe. Just seven years ago, Cheyney’s enrollment was 1,600. While the report didn’t recommend any moves, there are those who believe closure or a merger can happen.

“Although the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education was forced several months ago by Cheyney activists to abandon its nefariously racist plan to gobble up Cheyney by merging it with West Chester [University], Cheyney still has a much bigger problem,” said Michael Coard, a Cheyney alumnus and attorney for Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a coalition devoted to saving the school.

“And it’s not solved by the recent report. Cheyney could lose its accreditation — meaning the immediate loss of federal financial aid for more than 90 percent of its students — if [Pennsylvania] Gov. Tom Wolf doesn’t finally assert himself by ordering his PASSHE agency to provide Cheyney with the resources that are required for continued accreditation and that PASSHE legally owes Cheyney based on a 1999 signed agreement. By breaching that 18-year-old agreement, PASSHE now owes Cheyney more than $100 million.”

West Chester University, which is only 5 miles away, is growing rapidly. The school, which has an enrollment of 15,845, markets itself in many locales. For example, signage about West Chester is displayed throughout Union Station in Washington, D.C. West Chester is 120 miles from the nation’s capital.

Meanwhile, Cheyney is in upheaval. On May 31, the university named Aaron A. Walton as its interim president. Walton, a former senior vice president of Highmark Inc., took over from Frank G. Pogue, who had been the school’s interim president since November 2014. Walton is a longtime member of PASSHE’s board of governors. He also co-chaired a task force last spring whose goal was to chart a new course for Cheyney.

“We’ve got three things that we must do,” said Walton. “One, we have to limit the budget. We have a revenue of $20.5 million. We’re projecting a budget of $28 million. That means we have to find $7.5 million and we can’t look for the state to bail us out. We have to learn to live within our means. Two, look at our academic offerings and see that they are aligned with where the job market is at today. The third thing is our infrastructure. We have to look at how we’re internally structured and how we can operate effectively and efficiently.

“We’re going to have a report for them. We’re just finalizing everything. It should be ready by [Aug.] 28th, and we hope to hand-deliver it to them on [Aug.] 29th. We’re going to do everything that we can to save Cheyney.”

A course for preserving Cheyney University is still being navigated.

“I believe the board of governors is going to look at the report given and come up with suggestions as it relates to the report that they believe will put them in better shape in the future,” said Robert W. Bogle, chairman of the Cheyney Council of Trustees.

Founded in 1837, Cheyney is situated on 275 acres in Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Chester counties. A long history of financial trouble, declining enrollment and instability has helped put Cheyney’s accreditation with the commission in jeopardy. The three issues that Middle States has raised are leadership, academic offerings, and a stable and sustainable financial plan.

“Cheyney’s accreditation is still in jeopardy,” said Coard. “And it’s on track to lose it within the next few weeks unless Gov. Wolf finally does the right thing by ordering PASSHE to do four things: one, provide long overdue increased funding; two, develop a long-term plan for growth; three, allocate institutional resources; four, appoint a permanent president.”

A Cheyney University task force report recommended several actions, among them being more aggressive in student advising, new academic programming and procedures, a feasibility study on the possibility of selling or leasing some of the university’s unused land to raise revenue and the elimination of NCAA Division II sports in favor of less costly intramural team and club sports.

The men’s basketball program is seventh all-time in NCAA win percentage. The Wolves have captured 16 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships, four NCAA Division II Final Four appearances and one national championship, which was claimed by Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach John Chaney in 1978.

In 1982, the women’s basketball team competed in the championship game of the inaugural NCAA Division I tournament despite being a Division II school.

But those were the good times. During the 2007-08 through 2010-11 academic years, the university violated NCAA rules as numerous student-athletes competed while ineligible because of improper certification.

More than 100 student-athletes practiced, competed and received travel expenses and/or athletically related financial aid before the university received their amateurism certification status from the NCAA Eligibility Center. A former compliance director failed to properly monitor student-athletes’ eligibility. As a result, Cheyney’s athletics program is on probation until August 2019.

Academically, it’s even worse. The task force noted that Cheyney’s graduation rates have been about two-thirds lower than the rest of the state system. Currently, only 11 percent of students graduate in four years, and 26 percent graduate in six years.

Financially, according to the report, the school has been running a deficit since 2011-12 and has relied on more than $30 million in loans from the state system. Those loans might now be forgiven, based on the latest compromise announced Tuesday.

Coard believes things can change.

“The Cheyney University National Alumni Association [CUNAA], under its current president Alphonso Coleman, immediate past president Junious Stanton and prior president Marion Halliburton, raised nearly $3 million in scholarships on its own within the past three years,” said Coard. “CUNAA and several other alumni groups are at the forefront in the financial, political and legal battle to save and enhance Cheyney.”

Bogle thinks looking at academic offerings could be a key to Cheyney’s future.

“The only way that we’re going to be a competitive academic institution is if we can offer academic offerings based upon the workforce needs,” said Bogle. “Health care sciences is a huge area right now. Nurse practitioners, there is a need for. There is a growing need for teachers.”

Cheyney isn’t the only HBCU in trouble. Many of America’s HBCUs, which are concentrated in the South, are in crisis after years of falling enrollment, declining academic offerings and graduation rates, shrinking endowments and poor management.

As Bogle noted, about 10 percent of black college-bound students attend HBCUs. He noted that desegregation has changed the college landscape for many black students.

“Cheyney has been faced with some challenges for the last 15 to 20 years,” said Bogle. “HBCUs have been faced with these. Once African-Americans were freed and could go anywhere they wanted to go, it put a strain on finances. Once they began to go to other institutions, it challenged [HBCUs].”

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.