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Cheyney University is dropping its NCAA Division II status and will withdraw from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference at the end of the school year on June 30. PHOTO BY ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

More changes are forthcoming at the nation’s oldest Historically Black College and University.

Cheyney University President Aaron A. Walton has announced that the school is dropping its NCAA Division II status and will withdraw from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference at the end of the school year on June 30.

The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference consists of 18 full-time members and competes as an NCAA Division II league. Cheyney has been a member of PSAC since its inception in 1951.

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

Ironically, 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. Then called 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” Lesyath, 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. The school suspended its football program in December 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 independents.

One option for Cheyney could be the Middle Atlantic Conferences, 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.

“Sometimes, you gotta step back in order to leap forward,” said Michael Coard, a Cheyney alumnus and attorney for Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a coalition devoted to saving the school. “Accordingly, we should consider Division III or even a top-notch well structured intramural program.

“Initially, I strongly opposed it as further diminishment of Cheyney’s overall status. 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 who continue to get crushed by teams with much better resources.”

Walton, who served as interim president of Cheyney for six months, was voted in as president by The Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in November. He will serve as president through June 30, 2021. Walton firmly 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 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Last November, the commission granted Cheyney another year of probation. The school has been on probation since 2015 and remains at risk of losing its accreditation. Without accreditation, Cheyney students would have been ineligible for state and federal tuition aid.

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

dbell@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5746

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