Threatened by Financial Crisis, Cheyney University, Nation’s Oldest HBCU, Has ‘Bleak’ Future

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Humphrey's Hall at Cheyney University
Humphrey’s Hall at Cheyney University

At the top of Cheyney University’s website, a banner proudly proclaims, “A National Treasure for 175 years,” but this national treasure—the nation’s oldest HBCU—is in danger of being taken down by financial struggles.

Founded in 1837, the university in Cheyney, Pa., is suffering from many of the same issues hurting HBCUs across the country: A decline in enrollment, poor graduation rates, a scarcity in funding from the state and high student loan defaults.

“Cheyney is in dire, dire, dire straits,” the state’s auditor general, Eugene DePasquale said on Wednesday when he released the results of a 54-page performance audit of the school.

He described the school’s future as “bleak and projected to worsen,” according to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

DePasquale called upon the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the legislature “to help Cheyney find a way out of a ‘vicious destructive cycle.’”

As of June 2013, the school was facing a deficit of $12.3 million.

So in October, a group of students, alumni and community activists took matters into their own hands, resurrecting a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the school—the smallest of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities—is in such dire financial shape because the state never followed through on promises made in 1999 to settle a 1980 federal lawsuit.

The plaintiffs claim that as part of the 1999 settlement, the state promised to develop and strengthen several areas of study at Cheyney, among them computer science, middle school certification, geographic information systems, emerging technology, pre-professional programs and hotel, restaurant and institutional management programs.

“Pennsylvania promised to limit the expansion within the State System’s regional universities in the identified academic programs areas,” says the 14-page complaint. “This promise meant that the state was committing to not having ‘‘‘unnecessary program duplication.’’’

Instead, the suit alleges, the defendants “allowed and affirmatively encouraged duplication of Cheyney’s unique programs” at other state schools in a way that “demonstrates a bias and preference” for the vitality of schools other than Cheyney.

The settlement of the suit in 1999 was five years after theU.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating states “that once practiced segregation in higher education and were never officially found to have eliminated it.” In the settlement, the state agreed to provide $35 million to Cheyney over a five-year period. At the time Cheyney’s annual budget was about $23 million.

Even without cuts in state funds, DesPasquale said on Wednesday that Cheyney still “would have been challenged anyway.”

Cheyney credits its poor financial position to increased expenses for employees’ salaries and benefits, bad debt from students. Unpaid debts, from students and others, that are considered not collectible have risen from $560,775 as of June 30, 2011, to $1,570,851 as of June 30, 2013, the Post-Gazette reports.

“Declining enrollment has been a significant factor in Cheyney’s fiscal condition. The university recently announced a number of changes related to its academic offerings that are intended to better align its programs with student and employer demand. Those efforts must continue as the university seeks to regrow its enrollment,” Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the State System, told the Post-Gazette.

CU’s enrollment (1,179) is only two-thirds of what it was at its peak in 1983, Reuters says.

The university is attempting to fix its financial problem by making large cuts. The audit reported that CU cut 23 percent of its workforce and 22 percent of non-personnel costs.

Though the new lawsuit doesn’t specify the dollar amount being sought, Michael Coard, a spokesman for the coalition, says the plaintiffs want more money to develop high-demand and academic programs, improved facilities and better recruiting to compete for students.

The goal is “parity through equity,” he said. “If you build it, they will come. Students will come to Cheyney if there is something to come there for.”

 

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