Up Next

HBCU Education

Despite turmoil, new Cheyney University president says, ‘I can see a bright future’

School is still on probation, but Aaron Walton has a year to begin correcting systemic problems

Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically black university, has been granted another year of probation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

After meeting with Cheyney officials on Nov. 16 in Philadelphia, the commission notified the school on Nov. 17 of its decision to extend the probation.

“This is great news,” said Robert W. Bogle, chairman of Cheyney University’s Council of Trustees. “It gives us another year to provide quality education. It also gives us an extended time to correct some things. We have a lot of work to do.”

Cheyney has been on probation since 2015 and was at risk of losing its accreditation because of its troubled finances, poor academic record and unstable leadership. Without accreditation, Cheyney students would’ve been ineligible for state and federal tuition aid.

Such a loss would force the school to close, but the commission has given the college until June 2019 to correct its problems.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Aaron A. Walton, who was selected as the school’s president on Monday. “We’ve got a number of things to do, but first we’ve got to balance our budget. Second, we’ve got to resolve our issue with the Department of Education. We self-reported ourselves, and we have to resolve issues regarding funding for 2013, ’14 and ’15. We don’t know where we are there, but we want to resolve those issues. Third, we want to work on restoring the trust the community has in Cheyney. If we’re going to survive, we’re going to need that trust. ”

Cheyney was first accredited by the commission in 1951 and last reaffirmed accreditation in 2014. In 2015, the agency put the college on probation, citing insufficient evidence that the university was in compliance with its standards for institutional resources and expressing concerns regarding leadership and governance. The college had been without a permanent leader since 2014, when former president Michelle R. Howard-Vital retired.

Other concerns were enrollment, which dropped to around 700 students, and Cheyney’s continued overspending. The commission’s concerns grew in 2016, when it cited issues with planning, resource allocation and institutional renewal, administration and a requirement of financial responsibility.

On Nov. 13, the board of governors of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education named Walton president of Cheyney for a term beginning immediately through June 30, 2021, to ensure stable leadership while the university implements a multiyear financial plan. Walton had served as Cheyney’s interim president since May, shortly after Middle States ordered Cheyney to “show cause” as to why its accreditation should not be withdrawn.

Since then, the university has submitted a detailed operating plan to Middle States that explains, among other things, how it will balance its budget in the future while meeting the educational needs of students.

“As a result of Pennsylvania’s decades-long and still ongoing systemic racism in the form of blatant discrimination, inadequate resources, destructive administrative appointments and lax oversight, Cheyney almost lost its accreditation and died,” said Michael Coard, a Cheyney alumnus and attorney for Heeding Cheyney’s Call, a coalition devoted to saving the school. “But it didn’t. Just like alumnus Octavius Catto never really died, neither will Cheyney. Our fight continues.”

Founded in 1837, Cheyney is situated on 275 acres in Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Chester counties, 45 minutes from Philadelphia.

A Cheyney University task force recommended several actions, among them being more aggressive in student advising, new academic programming and procedures, a feasibility study on whether to sell or lease some of the university’s unused land to raise revenue, and the elimination of Division II sports in favor of less costly intramural team and club sports.

The men’s basketball program is seventh all-time in NCAA win percentage. The Wolves have captured 16 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships, had four NCAA Division II Final Four appearances and won one national championship, which was claimed by Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach John Chaney in 1978.

In 1982, the women’s basketball team competed in the championship game of the inaugural NCAA Division I tournament despite being a Division II school.

During the 2007-08 through 2010-11 academic years, the university violated NCAA rules as numerous student-athletes competed while ineligible because of improper certification. More than 100 student-athletes practiced, competed and received travel expenses and/or athletically related financial aid before the university received its amateurism certification status from the NCAA Eligibility Center. A former compliance director failed to properly monitor student-athletes’ eligibility. As a result, Cheyney’s athletics program is on probation until August 2019.

Academically, it’s even worse. The task force noted that Cheyney’s graduation rates have been about two-thirds lower than the rest of the state system. Currently, only 11 percent of students graduate in four years, and 26 percent graduate in six years.

According to the report, the school has been running a deficit since 2011-12 and has relied on more than $30 million in loans from the state system. In August, Pennsylvania’s state university system extended a lifeline to Cheyney by agreeing to forgive more than $30 million in loans if the school can achieve and maintain a balanced budget over the next four years. The measure was approved by the board of governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

“I can see a bright future for Cheyney,” said Walton. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Daryl Bell is the assistant news editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. He's a veteran journalist who has covered every major sport, and many minor ones.