A coalition of Cheyney University faculty, students, alumni, staff and supporters will be filing a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, alleging racial discrimination against the historic institution, according to an attorney for the school.
The coalition which calls itself Heeding Cheyney’s Call, is fighting to restore and increase state funding for the historic Black university, funding that attorney Michael Coard said is not on equal footing with the 13 other state colleges and universities. Heeding Cheyney’s call was organized in 2013 to revive a 1980 lawsuit alleging severe violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal protection clauses inherent in the 14 Amendment.
“Right now Cheyney has an all-time low student enrollment and an all-time high budget deficit,” Coard said. “This is because of decades of racial discrimination by the commonwealth which has continued to reduce funding for the institution. We want parity through equity; a level playing field with the white universities. Cheyney isn’t on equal footing with the other state institutions because its financial assistance was cut. The state has been giving Cheyney less and white schools have been getting more. The state ties funding to enrollment but the reason Cheyney doesn’t have the necessary enrollment is because it lacks the funding which ties into creative high-demand academic programs.”
Coard said that members of Heeding the Call’s negotiation team had been meeting in Harrisburg with state attorneys and budget officials for the past year. Dr. Earl Richardson, attorneys Pace McConkie and Joe H. Tucker, and former Cheyney professor of mathematics E. Sonny Harris were among those who met in Harrisburg in hopes of negotiating a settlement with the state.
Coard said that Cheyney’s plight is the result of decades of discrimination by the commonwealth. In 1969 the state was officially found by the precursor to the federal Department of Education to have been one of only ten states still operating a discriminatory system of higher education. In 1980, a successful discrimination lawsuit was filed against the state by Cheyney students, faculty and staff. They won the lawsuit in 1983 and the state agreed to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights anti-discrimination plan. Harris said not all of the provisions in the 1983 agreement were met.
“We won that lawsuit but the state didn’t fulfill all of its agreements,” Harris said. “In 1999 the state signed an agreement to resolve those issues which brings us to where we are now. We had been negotiating for the past year and we thought we were making progress. Two months ago things started going downhill, primarily because we presented a plan for instituting 10 new academic programs and funding to monitor and advertise the programs. We decided the state was playing games so we’ll be in court on Wednesday.”
Harris said that currently, the historic Black university only has about 1,000 students. It needs at least 3,500 to be successful and new high demand academic programs, state of the art facilities and upgrades to existing infrastructure.
Coard said Cheyney’s underlying problem is whether the state is meeting is obligation under Sections 1983 and 2000 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and whether it has eliminated and rectified all vestiges of discrimination in its school system of higher education. He said that hasn’t happened.
Coard said a similar lawsuit was filed in Maryland on behalf of HBCU’s there and they won. A federal judge ruled Maryland policies were detrimental to HBCUs and remedies were needed.