HBCU Insights: Protecting Cheyney’s legacy

A column by Dr. Larry Walker

For nearly 180 years Cheyney University has been a beacon of hope for Black students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds with untapped potential. Throughout their tenure students were molded by the caring hands of administrators, alumni, faculty, staff and students committed to changing the narrative regarding historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Far too often, the struggles of HBCUs including Cheyney are widely publicized without acknowledging years of triumphs. The university has a distinguished history that should not be ignored. Luminaries including noted scholar and educator Leslie Pinckney Hill, 60 minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, former Montgomery County Superintendent, Dr. Paul Vance and Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin walked Cheyney’s hallowed halls. Despite the barriers Cheyney stands at the Pantheon of HBCUs. It was founded years before the Emancipation Proclamation, withstood the Nadir and attempts to ignore its mission.

Cheyney is the bedrock, which other HBCUs stand upon. Thus, the universities future is inextricably linked to all HBCUs. If Cheyney continues to falter what does that say about the future of our institutions? In spite of the battle with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the looming decision by the U.S. Department of Education, as a proud alumnus,  I am not ready to write Cheyney’s epilogue. It is vital that the state works with advocacy groups including Heeding Cheyney’s Call to address years of systematic isolation. The institution is the oldest of the 14 state schools and plays a vital role educating Black students. Founded as a teacher’s college Cheyney can help the state and nation increase the number of Black teachers in underserved communities. In addition, the hotel, restaurant and tourism program can meet the growing need for professionals while the new science center can address the lack of Black physicians.

HBCUs throughout the United States are facing serious questions regarding their relevancy. Institutions including St Paul’s College and Morris Brown College closed or operate on a shoestring budget. Other HBCUs including South Carolina State University and Norfolk State University have faced questions from state legislators despite years of success. However, pundits do not focus on the millions of dollars in federal,  state and foundation grants secured by HBCUs including Hampton, Howard and Morgan State University. Ensuring HBCUs including Cheyney continue to remain viable should include a multipronged approach, which includes feedback from members of the university family. Recently, Cheyney has taken steps to incorporate alumni and faculty concerns to develop a blueprint to solve a variety of problems. Alumni are critical to the Cheyney’s future success. As an alumnus I can speak to the passion and commitment from graduates who are prepared to fight for the institution.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend Homecoming. The annual event brings together alumni, family and friends to relive old memories, reignite rivalries and network. Students and graduates are united in their fight to protect Cheyney’s legacy. Cheyney is an important cog in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Without Cheyney the system would be incomplete. Forcing Cheyney to merge or close would deny students from underserved communities the opportunity to complete their post-secondary education. Moreover, the university has the capacity to address workforce needs throughout the region including developing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. The university needs the state to invest, not disinvest to compete with institutions of comparable size.

Solving the problems facing Cheyney would not occur overnight but a collaborative effort between alumni, administrators, faculty, state and students could turn the  tide. The issues facing Cheyney have reached a tipping point, however, the university cannot afford lose critical Title IV federal funding or capital expenditures from the state. For this reason, stakeholders should consider the following:

  • Resolve years of inadequate funding – the battle between the state and Heeding Cheyney’s Call is rooted in the state’s failure to abide by an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Cheyney needs critical funding to renovate and rebuild its infrastructure. Over the last few decades the university has received minimal funding to maintain buildings on campus. Investing additional resources while holding the university accountable for expenditures would change the narrative. The institution is the key to increasing six-year college graduation rates for Black and Latino students in the region.
  • Link Cheyney’s success to workforce needs – Allocating resources to key programs that align with state workforce needs is important. The state has to view Cheyney as a partner that could increase the number of Black and Latino residents with critical skills. Establishing a business incubator that focuses on entrepreneurship would encourage students to start a company and reinvest by sponsoring an endowment, scholarships and funding for vital programs.
  • Hire a change agent – Cheyney has suffered through years of interim presidents and employee turnover. Small HBCUs including Claflin University located in Orangeburg, SC and Paul Quinn College located in Dallas, TX provide a template that should be duplicated by Cheyney. Leaders including Dr. Michael Sorrell and Dr. Henry Tisdale worked with alumni to increase fundraising and the institutions international profile. Identifying a president and staff equipped to work with the state, address alumni, student concerns and raise money for Cheyney is paramount.

Cheyney is at a crossroad. The university can no longer afford to continue along the same path. Years of inadequate leadership have left the university in a quandary. However, with the support of the alumni, state and students the university can overcome the current dilemma. Failure is not an option. Losing Cheyney could start a ripple effect that impacts every HBCU in the United States. The souls of deceased alumni would not rest if the crown jewel of HBCUs fails to survive.

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Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educational consultant focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students from HBCUs.

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