Facing more than $30 million in debt, a lack of academic niches and a geography problem, Cheyney University is all but gone despite the honorable fight for its survival being waged by alumni and supporters.
A new report issued last month by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its task force on Cheyney’s reclamation project, all but outlines just how the school will be closed down or merged within a handful of years.
To many, the report reads like an earnest roadmap to saving one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs, plagued in recent years by decreased enrollment, dramatic cuts in state appropriations, and struggles with the federal government in processing financial aid and managing capital debts.
But to read it with a discerning eye for exactly what the school needs shows that the task force and its members were more committed to publishing what sounds good for an HBCU to be doing in the 21st century, and not what is possible to work for Cheyney.
Task force members say that rescuing Cheyney will rely upon its ability to research race, social justice and economic prosperity, to cut its academic programs and focus its recruiting to high-achieving students; to offer intrusive student advisement and career counseling, to cut NCAA sports, encourage international study and to sell or lease campus buildings for mixed use are the highlights of their vision for the nation’s oldest HBCU.
But none of these recommendations come with promises of federal or state appropriations to make them a reality. Not one corporate partnership is listed, despite Cheyney being near large companies like WaWa and AstraZeneca. The report doesn’t name one high school or technical college which will offer students into a potential pipeline for entry or transfer to Cheyney, and nothing lays out how faculty will be paid well enough to support increased research, more rigorous teaching and learning, and on-site mentoring.
It is very easy for PASSHE, the well-intentioned black folks serving at its commissioning, and others to suggest how to make Cheyney and other HBCUs in operational peril more sustainable. But if things were that easy, the schools wouldn’t be in such peril and wouldn’t have been left to languish for decades before reaching such a point.
Cheyney can be saved, but it will take negotiations with the federal government to ease debt obligations, a massive fundraising campaign to support student scholarships and faculty salary, and oversight by a governing board interested in attracting more than lip service for Cheyney’s cause. Pennsylvania, like many states, decided years ago that HBCUs were no longer necessary and begun the deliberate campaign to attract black students to predominantly white campuses while maligning HBCUs with few resources, modern buildings or competitive programs to offset the great migration.
Cheyney is the most extreme version of how a state can shut down public black colleges and sneakily attribute the failure to leadership. But other schools like Grambling State, Southern and South Carolina State face similar challenges. All of them survive today because of the real threat of discrimination lawsuits against state governments; so most states are resolved to patiently wait for accreditation issues, crushing debt or scandal to finish the job.
The best thing we can do as HBCU advocates is to not only recognize the smart ways of saving schools, but to recognize when they are being shut down before our eyes. And possibly, to have the wisdom to concede a loss and to move on to more solvent causes. Cheyney, for all of its history and former potential, may just be one of those causes because we simply took too long to recognize its plight.