Cheyney plans sweeping changes to secure its future — and accreditation

As it faces a November decision on whether it will keep its accreditation, the school plans an aggressive fundraising campaign and several partnerships.

Cheyney University President Aaron Walton describes the school's plan to secure solvency and accreditaton. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cheyney University President Aaron Walton describes the school's plan to secure solvency and accreditaton. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

An environmental consulting company and a medical facility will soon be setting up shop on the Cheyney University campus in Chester and Delaware counties.

And the nation’s oldest historically black university may also have a hotel and conference center in its future.

Those moves involving partnerships with a number of entities are part of the university’s roadmap toward solvency and maintaining its accreditation.

A university task force was created two years ago to guide the turnaround efforts after years of financial deficits and low enrollment at the school.

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Cheyney University’s stakeholders hope the ambitious plans will secure its future for another century.

Part of those plans will be a balanced budget for the first time in six years, said Cheyney President Aaron Walton Tuesday at the school’s science center.

The HBCU must maintain a balanced budget to keep its accreditation, and that means eliminating a $4 million deficit by June.

Walton said the school has managed to cut $7.5 million in costs over the past year.

The university has also started a local and national fundraising campaign that targets wealthy donors and alumni, said Roslyn McPherson, a fundraising consultant.

“There is a great deal of attention being paid to the sustainability of our historic HBCUs,” she said.

At a state Senate budget hearing last month, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said Cheyney was projected to be $10 million short and needed to consider unaccredited options.

Cheyney University President Aaron Walton outlines plans for the university’s partnerships. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But Walton said he’s optimistic about the progress the school is making.

“I came out of a 40-year corporate environment where part of my role was to do turnarounds. My marching orders on four turnarounds that I did was make it work or shut it down,” he said. “They don’t need a turnaround artist to come to Cheyney to shut it down. Anyone could’ve done that.”


The university will also establish private-public partnerships with Starbucks, Thomas Jefferson University and Epcot Crenshaw, a sustainable environmental consulting company.

When Epcot Crenshaw moves its headquarters and laboratories to campus, it will serve as a revenue-sharing model, said CEO Charles Smith.

“This is going to be a bridge between technology and natural sciences. And the students and faculty and all the other third parties involved will have real-world experience from start to finish,” he said.

Thomas Jefferson University’s plan for a medical facility follows a joint research project it’s already working on with Cheyney.

“We’re currently having bidirectional partnerships going on now. Faculty and staff from Thomas Jefferson University come out here and … faculty from Cheyney University come to our campus in Center City,” said Joseph Hill, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health.

Cheyney students are already participating in Jefferson’s Leadership Academy, and seven students have work-study positions at Jefferson.

What’s more, Cheyney officials are negotiating with several chains that may be interested in building a hotel and conference center on campus as part of the university’s hotel, restaurant and tourism management program.

“I believe it’ll be good for us in general and for the Cheyney University name because as we have people stay in these hotels from all over the world, all over the country, they get to learn the name of Cheyney University,” said student Blaine Lewis-Thompson, a hospitality major.

Walton said the three- to five-year plan will include more partnerships to help with the area’s workforce development needs.

“I think the partnerships are heavily dependent on accreditation,” he said. “Because those partnerships are contingent upon Cheyney continuing to be a degree-granting institution and because those are internships that will lead to real-world experiences.”

Meanwhile, the university expects a 30 percent increase in enrollment this fall, bringing the number of students to 700, Walton said. He credited a new recruiting strategy for the turnaround.

The Middle States Association will make its decision on whether Cheyney keeps its accreditation in November.

Without accreditation, the state-owned school would be ineligible to receive federal financial aid. Right now, 94 percent of Cheyney’s students receive some type of financial aid that is administered through the school.


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