Cheyney University is facing a watershed moment as its accreditation is in jeopardy and it doesn't have the money to keep its doors open for the remainder of this academic year. Shown here is the campus' science building, at left, (one of the two new buildings erected on the campus in the past three decades) and the administration center.
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Cheyney University is facing a watershed moment as its accreditation is in jeopardy and it doesn’t have the money to keep its doors open for the remainder of this academic year. Shown here is the campus’ science building, at left, (one of the two new buildings erected on the campus in the past three decades) and the administration center.
Cheyney University, founded 182 years ago, has reached a point where its future has never looked more bleak.
The Delaware County historically black university is nearly $10 million short of being able to keep its doors open for the remainder of this academic year. Its enrollment has sunk to 469, the lowest level in at least four decades. And it’s looking increasingly likely the institution needs a miracle to happen to avoid losing its accreditation.
State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein painted a brutally honest picture of the status of this system university for the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Greenstein said he doesn’t think closing Cheyney is the right move, but the nation’s oldest black institution of higher education can’t continue on its current path.
Cheyney is at “a watershed moment,” Greenstein said.
The system’s board is meeting this week to decide whether to loan $10 million to Cheyney to cover its shortfall for this year. That money would come out of allocations to the other 13 system universities and is on top of $43 million it already owes to its sister schools.
Beyond that, the system’s board also is going to have decide what path it wants to pursue with Cheyney going forward – with or without its accreditation.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education will make a decision in November whether or not to renew the university’s accreditation.
By then, Cheyney has to demonstrate that it has complied with certain conditions that Middle States has set for it and given the school an unprecedented two years to meet. Two of those conditions have to do with balancing its budget, which it is not able to do this year.
Losing its accreditation would cost the university an important seal of approval enjoyed by many higher education institutions. More importantly, its students are unable to receive federal financial aid.
Greenstein told the panel of senators he sees only three options ahead for Cheyney and offered his opinion on each.
“One of them is to continue as we are, which in my professional opinion is not viable,” he said. “The second is to recommend to the Legislature that Cheyney be closed because only the Legislature has that authority. That in my professional opinion would be the wrong thing to do.
“A third path is to acknowledge the likelihood that our accreditation will be lost immediately to begin to plan for our students and our employees who deserve a future and need our attention,” he said.
That third option would involve working swiftly to continue state funding to put Cheyney on a different path. After the meeting, Greenstein clarified what that might look like.
“There’s a misconception that a viable future for Cheyney requires accreditation and that’s not true,” he said.
It could mean offering certificate and non-degree programming to meet workforce needs, an area where more higher education institutions are moving. Or it could mean Cheyney becomes a department or school and affiliates itself with an accredited university.
“There’s a world of opportunities out there,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
The chancellor’s description of Cheyney’s situation, though, struck some emotional chords.
Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, a longtime champion of the university, is hoping for a miracle to save Cheyney. Hughes commended the university’s President Aaron Walton, who came on board two years ago, for the difficult decisions and program cuts he made to try to save its accreditation.
He also chastised lawmakers and governors for neglecting to invest in the university, which he noted has had only two new buildings erected on its campus over the past three decades. He also acknowledged some poor decision-making by campus officials who mismanaged $47 million in student financial dollars that may have to be paid back to the federal government. And the school also lost 3,000 applications over a four-year span, which didn’t help.
But beyond that, Hughes said dollar and cents can’t be the only factors that decide Cheyney’s future. Its place in American history also has to be considered.
“The notion that historically black colleges and universities, Cheyney and Lincoln, … is predicated on a history of discrimination that required a place to be in position to educate folks, who could not get that education somewhere else by law,” he said. “There is a role and a place for this institution.”
Ken Mash, the system’s faculty union president, was on hand to witness the exchange and said Hughes wasn’t the only one taken aback by the chancellor’s brutal honesty about Cheyney’s situation.
“People are attached to that university with good reason. The university was there to address ongoing continued discrimination in Pennsylvania and to see that go away and go away under those circumstances is extremely difficult for people including me,” Mash said.
He said the problems at Cheyney were evident 10 years ago and that the powers that be chose to ignore them.
“I’ve seen people shrug their shoulders and say ‘That’s Cheyney’ as if that was some kind of an explanation for why they were willing to accept something at that university that they would never accepted at any other institution,” he said. “It’s a malignant indifference that’s what it is.”
What’s more, he said there are students who need an institution like Cheyney that will not be served if it goes away.
“It’s just awful,” Mash said.
Upon returning to his office, Mash held a video conference with Cheyney faculty to inform them of the conversation about their school and the discussion about its accreditation. He said they were stunned and their immediate concern was for the students and what would happen with them.
That was confirmed in an emailed statement by Cheyney faculty member B.J. Mullaney.
“First, as a faculty member I, and I believe all my colleagues, want what is best for our students,” she said. “Chancellor Greenstein discussed several possibilities. We really don’t have enough information in a situation that is still nebulous. We know that closing Cheyney does not seem to help anyone. What we hope is that any plan will result in the best possible outcome for Cheyney students.”
Whatever happens with Cheyney, Greenstein told the committee there are lessons to be learned from the circumstances that led it to where it is today.
“I hope we will take the time and create the space to learn those lessons so they will never be repeated in this commonwealth and in this country,” he said. “Cheyney’s history, the institution’s brand, the revered service that is offered to its students, its alumni, they deserve, they demand nothing less than that.”