In 2017 on November 17, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) officially informed Cheyney University that its accreditation would continue for at least another year. And this year, a few days ago on November 19, MSCHE issued a similar notification.
That’s wonderful because, without accreditation, a university cannot receive federal or state financial aid for its students. And since about ninety percent of Cheyney’s students are on financial aid, the loss of accreditation would have meant the death of my historic alma mater- the oldest Black institution of higher learning in America.
That’s the good — actually, the great — news. But we must acknowledge the bad news that got Cheyney into this accreditation continuation/revocation issue in the first place. In order to address that issue, let’s go straight to MSCHE’s November 19 notification wherein it raised the following three questions:
1. Have Cheyney’s “financial resources, funding base, and plans to assure long-term financial stability” continued to sufficiently improve?
2. Has the “implementation of budget reductions agreed to as part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE)-authorized debt forgiveness plan” sufficiently continued?
3. Has Cheyney continued to take sufficient steps to “resolve the $29.6 million potential liability to the U.S. Department of Education?”
Thanks to Governor Tom Wolf, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, the Council of Trustees, and especially President Aaron Walton, Cheyney continues to make substantial improvements, which means the answer to the three questions is a resounding yes.
In fact, MSCHE used phrases like “compelling evidence” and “significant progress” to describe Cheyney’s amazing turnaround.
Furthermore, under President Walton’s much needed business-oriented leadership, the university in July announced its on-campus Institute for the Contemporary African-American Experience, which is a cultural solutions-oriented think tank that will involve a collaboration with the likes of Thomas Jefferson University’s Medical College, Epcot Crenshaw Corporation, Starbucks Foundation, and other “movers and shakers” to promote the academic, employment, and community service interests of Cheyney students.
PASSHE recently issued a press release applauding Cheyney’s “transformational effort” to get things right. And I, in turn, applaud PASSHE’s applause. But I wish PASSHE had gone farther by issuing a statement that put Cheyney’s phoenix-like rising in context. In other words, I wish it had explained why Cheyney even needed to get things right in order to rise again. But since PASSHE didn’t, I will.
Cheyney’s dire situation, which was manifested in its all-time low student enrollment along with its all-time high budget deficit, wasn’t the result of self-inflicted wounds. It was the result of PASSHE’s and, before its creation in 1983, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s racism at worst and racial indifference at best. Here’s the proof:
1901- While Cheyney was a stand-alone teacher training school, the Commonwealth paid the full yearly tuition and stipend of $140 to white students to attend white state-owned teacher training schools but paid only $25 to Cheyney students.
1969- The Commonwealth was identified by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the ten worst states (including the usual suspects, namely Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, et al) discriminating against Blacks in higher education.
1983- The Commonwealth, via PASSHE, for the first time ever, finally submitted a formal anti-racial discrimination plan that was deemed acceptable by the U.S. Department of Education following repeated warranted rejections. But it was later discovered that plan wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
1999- At the insistence of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the Commonwealth, via PASSHE, signed a contract to resolve issues of racial discrimination against Cheyney. Then-Governor Tom Ridge, through his PASSHE Chancellor James McCormick and his Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok, signed that contract which, by 2018, should’ve resulted in $100 million to Cheyney for essential resources including attractive academic courses, quality administrators, new buildings, etc. However, 19 years later, PASSHE still owes Cheyney much of that $100 million.
Despite the wounds, Cheyney began to heal and always remained accredited. But, technically speaking it’s not a finalized accreditation. Cheyney has until August 25, 2019 to submit a report to MSCHE concerning the three aforementioned questions and until November 21, 2019 to “demonstrate compliance” with MSCHE’s standards. That means Cheyney has until near the end of next year to have its severe financial and institutional problems resolved, which means, among other things, that PASSHE must provide the financial and institutional resources it owes.
President Walton is doing great and innovative work. And he is doing it, in large part, by dealing diplomatically with PASSHE on Cheyney’s behalf. In that regard, he reminds me of a Martin Luther King-type diplomat. But Heeding Cheyney’s Call (HCC)- which was founded in 2013 by Professor E. Sonny Harris and Junious Stanton and of which I am a proud member- is much more confrontational in its approach. In that regard, we remind ourselves and others of a Malcolm X-type activist. That is why we filed a major civil rights lawsuit against PASSHE in federal court in 2014 and organized a massive rally against PASSHE in the Harrisburg State Capitol in 2015.
And we’ll do them both again if we have to. We’ll fight in the courts and in the streets for Cheyney- and we’ll do so “by any means necessary.” But we hope we won’t have to again since PASSHE now seems more like a friend than a foe.
We’re watching closely and we’re ready to heed the call of our beloved Cheyney because “When thou callest, alma mater, never shalt thou call in vain.”