What began as a series of early-year meetings facilitated by Gov. Tom Wolf culminated recently in what many hope will be the shot in the arm that gets Cheyney University moving in the right direction.

What resulted from those meetings — between Wolf; Aaron A. Walton, president of Cheyney University; and Dr. Stephen K. Klasko, president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health — was the formation of the Institute for the Contemporary African-America Experience.

“There were numerous introductions, but the relationship took off when Aaron Walton and I got together and started working with Governor Tom Wolf,” Klasko said in an email correspondence.

“What works for President Walton and me is the entrepreneurial spirit we share – that our historic institutions could make a real difference,” he added.

The depth of the collaboration was rolled out by the major players Tuesday during a news conference at the campus, located about 35 miles west of Philadelphia.

Cheyney, the nation’s oldest historically Black college, was instructed to make recommendations for a new institutional model after the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s Board of Governors unanimously approved an $8 million line of credit to assist the financially strapped university. In recent years, the university has had to rely on multiple lines of credit in excess of $30 million to operate.

One of the nation’s oldest medical colleges, Jefferson is among three partners – the other two are Starbucks and Epcot Crenshaw – involved in the initiative. Starbucks’ role has not been clearly defined.

What is clear in these partnerships is that Cheyney is embracing research along with STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Jefferson and Cheyney will partner initially on a research project to analyze health disparities among diverse communities in the Philadelphia region. The project will involve Jefferson doctors and Cheyney students conducting surveys of the health needs of Philadelphia residents.

The project will give Cheyney students the opportunity to participate in research and gain practical experience. Klasko says Jefferson will benefit by “expanding our outreach to ZIP codes in Philadelphia, which see disproportionate health disparities.

“Today, a ZIP code is a better predictor of life expectancy than genetic code,” Klasko said. “Universities, health systems and communities can no longer shrug our shoulders and accept these health disparities as fact.

“By joining Cheyney University and President Walton in launching its Institute for the Contemporary African American Experience, we are creating urgency around this pressing issue, engaging Cheyney students in researching community needs and working toward health equity in our neighborhoods,” he said.

In addition to the research project, Jefferson seeks to develop a series of agreements allowing Cheyney undergraduates to pursue professional degrees in the health sciences. The university has newly established pre-medicine and pre-nursing courses that would present opportunities for its students to at Jefferson.

Epcot Crenshaw, a research and development firm based in West Chester, will re-locate its laboratory to the campus. Initially the facility will be located in the McKnight Rogers building, with the adjacent area being developed to include administrative offices, analytical services laboratories and other research apparatus.

Starbucks’ role is still undefined, according to a spokesperson at the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain. “At this stage, we don’t have much more to add that what was shared at the event,” the representative said Thursday.

According Walton, Starbucks will “support research around race and economic opportunities and improving access.”

Cheyney and Starbucks were brought together in recent months as a result of meetings involving the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus in the aftermath of the arrest of two African-American men at a Starbucks store near Rittenhouse Square.

The pair, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were waiting to meet a business partner when the manager called police after the men sought to use the restroom and minutes later were asked to leave the store. Officers ended up arresting the men, who were not charged with a crime.

The incident in April resulted in national media attention, local protests, a settlement with Nelson and Robinson as well as the chain closing its stores for a day to conduct sensitivity training.

“Jordan called and said they [Starbucks] wanted to meet with us, “Walton said of state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-186). “That was the springboard.”

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