Was Cheyney University placed on probation in violation of protocol? • Pennsylvania Capital-Star

An hour before its Feb. 23 Founder’s Day event to celebrate its 187th anniversary, Cheyney University — the country’s first HBCU — held a press conference where university leaders blasted the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s (MSCHE’s) decision to place the university on probation. 

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D- Philadelphia), a member of the university’s Council of Trustees, issued a warning for every Black institution of higher learning: “HBCUs all across the country: If you don’t stand with us now, it could come your way.”  

In a letter to MSCHE, Gov. Josh Shapiro called the decision “hasty and premature.”

Although Cheyney remains fully accredited while on probation, the loss of accreditation would be a death knell for America’s oldest Black college, because it would render Cheyney ineligible to continue receiving federal and state financial aid. According to the university, 74% of students entering Cheyney in 2023-24 school year received federal Pell Grants, and overall, 70% of its students receive Pell Grants. As many as 94% of Cheyney students receive some form of financial aid.

MSCHE wrote to Cheyney in November explaining its rationale: It claims that the school’s “accreditation is in jeopardy because of insufficient evidence that the institution is currently in compliance” with various “standards” pertaining, but not limited, to having inadequate “resources” and being in need of “institutional improvements.”   

It is quite interesting that MSCHE is, in large part, blaming Cheyney for having insufficient resources and for being in need of improvements. Cheyney — unlike Pennsylvania’s other 13 state-owned and predominantly white institutions — has faced numerous obstacles since its founding in 1837 when slavery was still the law of the land. And MSCHE should be advised that those obstacles didn’t stop in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Let’s review a few of those obstacles:

  • 1901: The 100% white Pennsylvania legislature paid the full yearly tuition and stipend of $140 to white students to attend white state-owned teacher training schools but only $25 to Cheyney students.
  • 1969: Pennsylvania was identified by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the ten worst states for discrimination against Black students in higher education. At the time, the state government remained predominantly white.
  • 1983: The white-dominated Pennsylvania government for the first time ever finally submitted an anti-racial discrimination proposal that was deemed acceptable by the U.S. Department of Education following repeated warranted rejections. But it was later discovered that the proposal wasn’t worth the paper it was written on
  • 1999- At the insistence of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, with Pennsylvania’s government still predominantly white, the state’s Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok signed a contract to resolve issues of racial discrimination against Cheyney, which, as Cheyney’s former faculty union president Sonny Harris said in 2014, should have resulted in at least $100 million to Cheyney for essential resources including -–  but not limited to — attractive academic courses, state-of-the-art equipment, and new buildings. However, as of 2024, most of that $100 million is still contractually owed to Cheyney.

Fortunately, though, Gov. Shapiro —  like former Gov. Tom Wolf who in 2017 said “Cheyney will not fail on my watch” — is totally aware and actively supportive. “I share Cheyney leadership’s disappointment with your refusal to reevaluate your decision-making that led to placing the university on probation and your disregard of established procedure,” Shapiro wrote in his Feb. 20 letter.

The governor makes a compelling point regarding “established procedure.” He was referring to MSCHE’s own established procedure. And during that Feb. 23 press conference, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein pointed out that MSCHE’s decision “raises serious questions about the Commission’s procedural fairness.”

He also said he was “saddened, profoundly, that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education appears to have ignored the advice of its [own] visiting teams, which cited in their reports the measurable progress that Cheyney is making.”  

MSCHE’s decision to place Cheyney on probation is not only questionable in terms of procedural due process but also in light of Cheyney’s recent impressive accomplishments. As Chancellor Greenstein said, “Cheyney University is engaged in one of the most remarkable turnarounds in U.S. higher education ever.”

He went on to note that Cheyney’s “hard work and dedication are showing up in measurable ways- in data on student enrollments, student progression, and the university’s overall financial condition, all of which have improved over these past few years.”

Cheyney has seen enrollment increases every year since 2019, including a 15% freshman increase this past fall. And in regard to Cheyney’s overall financial condition, the university has had balanced budgets in the last five consecutive years.

Accordingly, as emphasized by Gov. Shapiro, “It is critically important [that MSCHE] schedule an urgent meeting with representatives from Cheyney and the U.S. Department of Education to discuss a plan for Cheyney’s exit from probationary status.” 

And, as he made clear, such a meeting is necessary for Cheyney to “revive its reputation” because “delaying these conversations will continue to have a harmful effect on this historic institution and most importantly on its students, which I am unwilling to accept as Pennsylvania’s Governor.” 

Originally published at penncapital-star.com,by Michael Coard

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