In Life or Death, Cheyney Offers Valuable Lessons on HBCU Sustainability

There is no coincidence that the Philadelphia Inquirer today published an exhaustive requiem on Cheyney University, one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges and the campus most likely to close in the next 12 months. A story that appears to have weeks, if not months of interviewing and research behind it breaks the HBCU Internet one day before officials at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education are scheduled to vote on whether the embattled HBCU should lose its accreditation.
Even if the commission votes Cheyney to full accreditation status, even if the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education completely forgives a $30 million loan given to Cheyney without condition and gives it an extra $30 million, it will not save the institution from the decades of indignity for Cheyney, caused by willful legislative neglect, changing demographics, and Black America changed views on higher education.

Forget What You Think You Know About Cheyney

I was gently corrected via text by an HBCU president earlier today about comments I made on Twitter about what seemed to be a common fire dance performed by HBCUs nationwide which I assumed also burned Cheyney; enrolling swaths of unprepared students for upfront tuition revenues while retention and graduation rates plummet on the front end.
The president correctly told me that retention and graduation rates at CU, even while at abysmal rates, had been stable until 2015, even while enrollment numbers dove and admission rates skyrocketed over the same period..

The presidential correction told me all that I needed to know about what really hurts Cheyney; that even those among us who live in, work for and love on our HBCUs, who really mine data and can explain HBCU context inside and out, still are conditioned to assume that HBCU failure is a direct result of internal incompetence and external disconnection – by and from black people.
Cheyney’s truth is that some black people, who have just as much right and freedom to be as incompetent as white people, made Cheyney’s destruction far easier to track and to justify. But it is far beyond the incompetence of one or some administrators; it is a mix of legislative destruction, financial hardship, executive failure, changing demographics, and an industrial revolution.

Pennsylvania’s Original Sin

Between 2007 and 2011, Cheyney could annually depend on enrolling between 1,200 to 1,500 students – numbers that wouldn’t move the meter, but certainly enough to keep doors opened and faculty employed. In 2009, Pennsylvania faced a $3.2 billion budget crisis that led to substantial cuts in higher education.
Between 2009 and 2015, public appropriations to PASSHE schools dropped from $477.3 million to $412 million, gutting the ability for Cheyney and other state institutions to offer robust student services and programmatic growth. At the same time, the number of high school graduates in the state begun to dip, and costs exploded across the higher education landscape.
And then there’s the Penn State University impact – 24 campuses across the state offering students throughout Pennsylvania 2+2 degree completion options.
When asked if the proliferation was harmful for the state’s smaller schools, PSU President Eric Barron punted.

Argall earlier this year pointedly asked Penn State President Eric Barron during a hearing on higher education whether he thought the branch campuses were affecting PASSHE and why state-relateds were so much more successful in enrollment. Barron said it was “very hard to see” that Penn State was taking students away.

And just like that, an entire system suffering from a smaller pool of potential students, budget cuts, cost increases and the expansion of the Penn State machine, began the death of Cheyney.

Cheyney’s Executive Crisis

Following the tenure of president Wade Wilson from 1968 to 1981, Cheyney has not been regarded as hotbed for long-term leadership. And in the past 10 years over the course of a national recession, state budget cuts, program proliferation around the campus and scandal, leadership turnover plagued the school at its most vulnerable time.
Three presidents in 10 years have come and gone, and while the Inquirer and PASSHE leaders would position Cheyney’s struggles as a result of corruption, most of the breakdowns could be attributed to new directions in leadership vision, objectives for internal auditing and work output, and operating systems.
The Inquirer’s investigation lays out several areas of concern for how Cheyney did business.

  • Cheyney administrators raided scholarship funds and research grants meant for students and faculty as well as other restricted funds totaling $3.4 million. They spent the money on day-to-day expenses, in possible violation of state and federal law.
  • Cheyney staffers failed to open or process the applications of as many as 3,000 prospective students between 2012 and 2015. Several hundred paper applications were never picked up from the post office.
  • The university at one point failed to invoice and collect $7 million in outstanding tuition bills, pushing its deficits even higher.
  • From 2011 through 2014, staff did not download SAT and ACT scores from the thousands of students who had applied. This prevented the school from being able to identify and recruit promising candidates.
  • More recently,  the Justice Department began investigating serious lapses in Cheyney’s handling of $29 million in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds — money that went to students who in some cases weren’t enrolled or didn’t have the grades or course load to qualify for the funds.

The suggestion is ignorance or wrongdoing on the part of Cheyney administrators. But how much of these lapses are attributable to new presidents coming in, hiring new vice-presidents, who hire new directors, who hire new staff? How much of the struggles could be connected to presidents working to bring in new technologies for data processing, but not having money or personnel to conduct proper training to staff?
It is not to absolve Cheyney or previous presidents and management of responsibility – it is to say that breakdowns like these aren’t always a result of people being too dumb or too lazy to hold their respective jobs – just as no one classified trustees at the University of Louisville as incompetent when their former president spent foundation money without oversight, or when Temple University fired its president after he fired his provost, after he allegedly cost the university $22 million.

The Final Blow From Black America

It doesn’t take a long narrative to suggest how black folks failed Cheyney; we just stopped going to the school. Some would suggest that its struggles are a lesson on what happens when HBCU alumni don’t give back, but the truth is that giving to HBCUs increased by $51 million in 2015. Enrollment at several HBCUs continues to spike at several public institutions, and there has never been more mass media resonance for HBCUs than over the last five years.
But we stopped going, partially because of the bad narratives created by finance, politics and culture in and around the campus, partially because of the growth of online education, and partially because Cheyney just doesn’t have degree programs which attract black students from a broad cross-section of Pennsylvania counties and bordering states.
That doesn’t mean Black America failed Cheyney, it just means that geography, industry, and culture sadly passed the school by.
This isn’t a story like Paul Quinn College where a young ambitious president who can fundraise and recruit students to believe in him is on the way; Cheyney just announced that its permanent leader will be a retired business exec who previously sat on the PASSHE board. Aaron Walton has on multiple occasions refused to share publicly the plan to salvage the school’s accreditation, which suggests that its either not much of a plan to believe in, or that it is a knockout and public discussion would spoil the salvation story.
Either way, it ain’t a good look for a school on the brink.
No one knows what will happen to Cheyney during tomorrow’s accreditation vote, but we do know that regardless of whether accreditation is terminated or maintained, Cheyney will never be the same.
And since it can’t be close to what it once was, or what it could be, then we should let it go.