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With school on the brink, Cheyney backers rally in Philadelphia

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 Cheyney students (from right) Shaquille Harrison, Nyrie Watson and Shaneka Briggs link arms as they make their way to Gov. Tom Wolf's Philadelphia office on Eighth Street to deliver a letter demanding funds for the struggling historically black university. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Cheyney students (from right) Shaquille Harrison, Nyrie Watson and Shaneka Briggs link arms as they make their way to Gov. Tom Wolf's Philadelphia office on Eighth Street to deliver a letter demanding funds for the struggling historically black university. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With the future of their school at risk, graduates and supporters of the nation’s first black college are trying to rally. And they want the area’s most powerful elected officials to rally with them.

Due to financial and enrollment woes, Cheyney University — which straddles Chester and Delaware counties — could lose its accreditation.

Tuesday, the college’s backers gathered near Gov. Tom Wolf’s satellite office in Center City Philadelphia to plead their case and call on the state’s most powerful politician for help.

“He can pick up the phone and call the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and say, ‘Hey, I’m Gov. Tom Wolf. I understand that Cheyney’s got some financial problems. We got Cheyney’s back,'” said Michael Coard, an attorney and Cheyney alumnus.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education accredits Cheyney, but it may not for much longer. In June, Middle States asked Cheyney to “show cause,” which means the historically black school must prove why it still deserves accreditation. That defense is due by the end of the month. In November, a committee may recommend the commission pull Cheyney’s accreditation.

Such a move could spell disaster for Cheyney, which was founded in 1837 and for years primarily functioned as a teachers college for black applicants shut out of all-white institutions. In the years since legal segregation ended, Cheyney continued to be a refuge for black students seeking degrees and a sense of belonging.

Carolyn Stinson arrived at Cheyney in the late 1960s from a mostly white school district in Western Pennsylvania.

“When I went to Cheyney, I was no longer in the minority, I could be myself,” she said. “And I got an excellent education.”

But the historically black school has fallen on especially hard times over the last decade.

Enrollment fell by half between 2010 and 2016. The school also took out $30 million in loans and may have to pay a similar amount to the federal government after it failed to properly track student aid money.

In response, a task force appointed by PASSHE — the body that oversees Cheyney and 13 other Pennsylvania state universities — recommended spiking the school’s sports programs and paring back its academic offerings.

But Cheyney backers rejected those suggestions Tuesday. They believe Cheyney’s struggles are rooted not in mismanagement, but in a state that has systematically discriminated against the historically black school. Supporters wore pins that read, in part, “We won’t let racists kill Cheyney.”

Coard said state leaders, for decades, have “underfunded, mistreated, neglected, and treated [Cheyney] like a foster child.”

And now Cheyney alum want what they say they’ve never gotten: the full-throated backing of their elected leaders.

U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans — who spoke at the rally — joined fellow Congressman Bob Brady and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in writing a letter to PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan asking him to back Cheyney as it faces potential closure.

“We remain optimistic Cheyney will show they have taken the steps needed to ensure the viability of the institution and will ensure we pursue all federal options, as is our duty to the people who live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the letter read. “We request that you do all you can to help them regain their strength and viability.”

Cheyney supporters want a similar show of force from Wolf, who spoke at Cheyney’s graduation in the spring.

Wolf spokesman JJ Abbott said the governor “has been working closely with the state system and the its board … to create a path forward for Cheyney that allows it to build off of its history, continue as a degree granting institution, and address its financial struggles.

“Gov. Wolf will continue to engage with state system and Cheyney leadership to address the current accreditation issues,”

Many of the school’s most ardent allies believe they’ll need the weight of influential leaders to save their beleaguered university. Perhaps it will be their best chance to fulfill the second line on the pins many wore Tuesday, an epitaph that read: “Cheyney University, 1837-Forever.”

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