Historically black colleges

Cheyney University President Aaron Walton has earned praise for his use of a business model in an effort to turnaround the troubled historically Black school near Philadelphia. — Submitted Photo

Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders of the state university system met earlier this week, and agreed to support efforts to transform and save the nation’s oldest Black university.

“We all agreed to support the exciting plan that Cheyney (University) has for transformation, integrating public and private partnerships with other innovative alternatives aimed at securing Cheyney’s long-term future,” said Cheyney President Aaron Walton. “We all agreed to work toward that end.”

The university in Delaware County has been struggling with a massive debt and declining student enrollment, which has led the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to reconsider the school’s accreditation. The commission is expected to evaluate Cheyney’s accreditation again in November.

“I think it’s kind of premature to predict what is going to happen in the fall when we’re only in February,” Walton said. “We have done five years worth of work in 20 months at Cheyney. We will do a whole lot more in the next six, seven months.”

At the meeting Wednesday were state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein and PSSHE Board of Governors Chairwoman Cynthia D. Shapira.

“We were making a bold commitment to get behind Cheyney and help it not just to survive but to thrive,” Hughes said, adding that Walton has helped increase student enrollment. “President Walton has done an amazing job making some very hard and very difficult decisions, taking some very hard and very difficult action to create a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The meeting in Harrisburg followed a state budget hearing where Greenstein testified that Walton was one of the “most creative leaders in higher education” but “arrived several years too late” to the college that was established in 1837.

Greenstein, who took office in September, noted in his testimony that Cheyney had about 415 enrollees and nearly one-third default on their students loans.

He also testified that Cheyney owes about $43 million in debt to the system. PASSHE agreed two years ago that it would waive repayment of more than $30 million in loans if the university demonstrates fiscal stability, but a budget shortfall would invalidate the agreement.

“Cheyney’s projected cash flow for the current year suggests that it is going to incur another debt of between $9 [million] and $10 million, a debt that this system board is going to have to act in order to alleviate,” Greenstein said last week. “Two of the four conditions of Cheyney’s continued accreditation have to do with balancing its budget, which it is not in a position to do in 2018-19.”

Greenstein says officials need to consider Cheyney’s future, and whether to allow it to continue to operate as-is, close or operate without accreditation.

As the fiscal year nears a close, the university is moving forward to balance its budget with aggressive fundraising plans, Walton said, adding that $7 million of the $10 million the chancellor referenced is actually cash flow, and lumping all of the funding together distorts figures for what is actually needed for the 2018-19 fiscal budget. He projected that $4 million or less would be needed to balance this year’s budget.

Walton, who is using a business model instead of an educational model to run Cheyney, said he was hired two years ago as a turnaround specialist.

Many of Cheyney’s former students have left for other historically Black colleges and universities, Walton said.

“That doesn’t say if we disband Cheyney all those students would just go to other state schools,” Walton said. “That’s not what the data tells us. It says they’re looking for an HBCU experience and this is the one they had chosen, so we just have to give them more reason to stay with Cheyney.”

To that end, the college has developed the Institute for the Contemporary African American Experience, which includes partnerships with Thomas Jefferson University, Epcot Crenshaw Corporation and Starbucks. The programs at the school about 32 miles west of Philadelphia will provide students with experience in allied health, research and social justice, respectively.

Cheyney Council of Trustees Chairman Robert Bogle said the school deserves the opportunity to be saved.

“(Cheyney) served many who would have been denied an education had it not been for Cheyney,” said Bogle, the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune and a Cheyney graduate. “There’s history here.”

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