Jul. 20--On 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester Counties, Cheyney University easily ranks as one of the most picturesque campuses in Pennsylvania's state university system.
The historic stone buildings of its renovated Quadrangle could rival those on college campuses across America.
But deep trouble festers beneath the isolated charm at the oldest historically black college in the country, so deep that state officials and some students, faculty and support staff say its future is very much in question.
The university is running a deficit, bleeding enrollment, and facing a nearly wholesale turnover in its administrative posts. Morale is rock-bottom at the unions representing support staff and faculty.
And Cheyney continues to post the most dismal retention and graduation rates of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Fewer than a third of the students who enter Cheyney as freshmen graduate six years later.
Just shy of a year as president, Michelle Howard-Vital finds herself under fire. The support-staff union called for her ouster at a rally this month. In an interview last month, she said she had plans to boost fund-raising, smooth relations with the unions, increase enrollment, close the budget gap, and raise the graduation rate. She also wants to get the word out about Cheyney's accomplishments. Among them: the university's honors college, which has a graduation rate above the national average.
Howard-Vital acknowledged Cheyney's financial struggles and "a reputation that has gone up and down." But she's passionate about the university's potential and place in American higher education, its having served as a beacon of hope for generations of underprivileged kids.
"It absolutely has a legacy," she said, "that you cannot deny."
Some of Cheyney's problems are the same as those faced by historically black colleges across the nation, which have lost enrollment as black students find more options at other universities.
Some of those schools have begun recruiting students from other races to boost enrollment. Historically black Morehouse College, in Atlanta, had its first white valedictorian this year, which made national news.
Howard-Vital, 55, said she would look to do the same at Cheyney, which is now more than 95 percent black. "If you look down the road four years from now," she said, "I don't know that's going to be the case."
Her every move, however, seems to bring a backlash from unions and allegations that she has mismanaged finances. State officials say they have found no evidence of mismanagement by Howard-Vital, who arrived after serving as interim president at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.
But state officials have suspended direct credit-card purchasing at the university and found cases of sloppy bookkeeping.
This month, state officials said that the 1,200-student school had reached a crisis, and that they were considering sending in a task force or management team to overhaul it.
Tightrope at the top
"It can't go on as it is," said James Dillon, the state system's vice chancellor for administration and finance, who has spent two days a week at Cheyney since March, when its acting controller was fired and its finance chief left.
"It does need to be turned around," he said. "We're looking at the best way to get it done that really honors the historic mission of that university."
Some say Howard-Vital, who rose through the administrative ranks at five other colleges, has made a sound effort at improving Cheyney during a tough time.
"We fully support our president, and we fully support the things she wants to do," said Robert W. Bogle, chairman of Cheyney's Council of Trustees and publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune.
Others argue that she lacks the negotiation skills and political tact to navigate Cheyney's choppy waters. Union and faculty officials complain that she has offered no clear vision or plan for improving the university.
Neal Holmes, president of the 100-member faculty union, the Cheyney Chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said she appeared to be trying "to balance the budget on the backs of faculty."
Administrators are being hired, but not faculty, he said.
"I think everybody should hang their head in shame for how they just let Cheyney fall," added Jean Martin, president of Local 2347 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the 75-member support-staff union.
Howard-Vital said she would continue to meet with the unions but not retreat on her plans to balance the budget and improve the school. She said, for example, that she found a handful of teachers who were being paid much higher salaries for extra duties -- and ended the practice.
And she wants summer school to offer what students want to take rather than what faculty members want to teach, she said. The support-staff union, she said, is mad because she tried to extend summer work hours -- a plan she dropped after the union complained.
Within six years, Howard-Vital said, Cheyney can increase its graduation rate to 50 percent by focusing on retention.
She pointed out that Cheyney's rate was not the worst for historically black colleges. The University of the District of Columbia graduates only 7 percent of its students in six years. Spelman College, a women's school in Atlanta, does the best, graduating 77 percent, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education says.
Cheyney is known for giving underprivileged inner-city students a chance at a college education that other schools may deny them. More than half of Cheyney students hail from Philadelphia, many from the underperforming city school district.
Michael Bradley, an accounting major who transferred to Cheyney from West Chester University, said Cheyney met his needs.
"As an African American student here, you feel more like it's your school," said Bradley, 23, of Philadelphia. "You feel like any position that a student could possibly hold, you feel like you could attain it."
Bradley said his grades were better at Cheyney than they had been at West Chester, and he is in the honors program.
But he cited drawbacks.
"West Chester was cleaner, and it tended to be more organized," Bradley said.
Blame goes around
Cheyney, founded in 1837 with a $10,000 bequest from Quaker Richard Humphreys, was first known as the Institute for Colored Youth. It moved from Philadelphia to George Cheyney's farm in 1902 and joined the state system in 1983.
The school has had troubles for years. A 1993 state-system report cited "serious concerns" in governance, institutional advancement, fiscal affairs and the physical plant. A federal civil-rights suit alleging the state did not adequately fund Cheyney led to a 1999 settlement in which the state had to funnel $36.5 million to Cheyney for building and academic upgrades.
Yet enrollment has dropped by a third since 1999, when it was above 1,800.
Why has trouble persisted for so many years?
"I can't speak to that," said Kenneth M. Jarin, chairman of the state system's Board of Governors, a position he has held for three years. "What I can say is this is a very high priority for us -- to make sure Cheyney is in a better place really soon."
Problems at Cheyney have led to finger-pointing.
Union officials fault Howard-Vital's administration, while the administration calls unions recalcitrant. Others say trustees have not performed their watchdog duty. Bogle, the trustees' chairman, points right back at the state, citing unfair funding.
But Bogle, a graduate of Cheyney who has served on the Council of Trustees for 18 years, acknowledged that the university also had brought on some of its problems: "We can't keep running it the way we've been running it."
A generation of students is caught in the cross fire.
"I don't get why we don't get as much money as everybody else," said Kareem Shelton, 24, a recreation and leisure-management major who once attended Clarion University, a state-system school that he found to have more up-to-date classrooms and dorms. "Look at what's around us. It's rich around us."
Pennsylvania officials say Cheyney gets more state funding per student than the other state universities, but has been unable to match them in tuition revenue and fund-raising, especially as its public image declines.
Frank G. Pogue, former president of the state system's Edinboro University and a member of the committee that recommended Howard-Vital as president, said states must do more for schools, like Cheyney, that serve disadvantaged students.
"The fastest-growing populations in this country are persons of color -- Hispanics, blacks -- and poor people," said Pogue, now interim president of Chicago State University. "We have to have some way to address" their educational needs.
Rahdearra Paris, 21, of North Philadelphia, found educational refuge at Cheyney. She struggled with a 1.5 grade point average and higher tuition at Delaware State University. At Cheyney, her GPA is 3.5.
"Cheyney actually gave me a chance and an opportunity to go back to school," said Paris, a political-science major.
But a major sore spot among the student body is Cheyney's aging dormitories. Most are more than 40 years old.
"The speed at which it's taken to get renovations is not fast enough for . . . a lot of people," said senior George Bush, 22, of Philadelphia, the student government's president.
The state system as a rule does not provide money for dorms; each school must fund them out of tuition and other self-generated revenue.
But Dillon said the state might help Cheyney build dorms with a combination of borrowed money and state capital.
Ongoing money woes
Over the last two years, Cheyney has struggled with a $2 million hole in its $27 million budget.
Dillon said the deficit was largely the result of the university's failure to plan for and adjust to a 200-student, or 14 percent drop, in full-time enrollment.
The state instituted tight spending controls in March when Dillon found finances in disarray, including "partial receipts" and "improper notations" for credit-card purchases.
Dillon stopped employees from making direct purchases on university credit cards. Cheyney is the only school in the state system without that privilege. But he said most of the allegations about credit-card abuse were false.
"Everybody that doesn't like somebody else accused them of a credit-card violation at Cheyney," he said.
Howard-Vital, he said, got so fed up with the accusations that she cut up her credit card and turned it in to the finance office.
The university is making changes to close the deficit, including running 50 percent fewer summer courses. Only classes with adequate enrollment are held, Dillon said.
Bush, the student-government president and honors student, said he hoped all sides could begin to work in the best interest of students.
"I always say it's better to negotiate with people than to try and attack," said Bush, a psychology major. "It's got to be a team effort at the end of the day."
Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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