Cheyney University supporters claim discrimination in suit against Pa., US

Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a broad-based coalition of Cheyney University supporters, has revived a federal civil rights lawsuit against Pennsylvania and the U.S. for racial discrimination.

The group claims the state has inadequately funded the historically black school in Thornbury for decades.

Retired math professor E. Sonny Harris said Wednesday the state needs to make up for its debilitating history of neglect.

“They say to us: We want to make you equal,” said Harris. “They can’t make us equal when you have discriminated against us for 30 years. You have to give us more money than you have given any other state school.”

In 1980, Cheyney University students, faculty, and staff filed a successful discrimination lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Then in 1999, the commonwealth signed an agreement with the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights that made specific promises to help end Cheyney’s funding deficit.

Lead attorney Joe Tucker said that they are reviving the lawsuit because the state has not fulfilled its promises, and the federal government has not enforced them.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education did not comment directly on the lawsuit, but asserted in a statement from Kenn Marshall that the state system has been collectively focused on Cheyney’s future: “We have been working closely together to identify and address the opportunities and challenges facing the university, especially those that have a direct impact on students.”

The statement also listed a series of facts concerning Cheyney’s funding.

“The amount of state appropriation provided last year per Pennsylvania student at Cheyney University is more than three times the state system average — $14,145 per Cheyney student compared to a system average of $4,529 per student,”  according to the statement.

Heeding Cheyney’s Call claims that the current funding is not enough to play catch up. Harris explained, in terms of new academic programs, facilities and equipment, Cheyney is far behind the other 13 state schools.

“Because of the lack of academic programs, Cheyney’s enrollment has gone down from 3,000 to 1,000 students” said Harris.

In addition to demanding an end to discrimination, the lawsuit is appealing for the funds to improve Cheyney’s infrastructure, resources, marketing, and academic programs.

“This isn’t something revolutionary, this is not something extraordinary, this is just something very simple,” said Tucker. “Let’s stop apartheid in education. We cannot have separate but equal.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.