A group of elected officials and a coalition of Cheyney University students and alumni said they will restart a 33-year-old federal civil rights suit against the state unless Gov. Corbett’s administration provides additional funding to help the deficit-plagued, historically black state school survive.
“We’re trying to make sure that Cheyney is treated not just fairly, not just equally but equitably,” said Michael Coard, a lawyer, Cheyney alumnus and part of a broad-based coalition calling itself “Heeding Cheyney’s Call.”
Because the university is small, compensating it under the same funding formula as the other 13 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is not adequate, the group charged.
On a sidewalk near Philadelphia’s federal courthouse — where some of the same members of the coalition filed the federal suit in 1980 — Coard said the group would give Gov. Corbett’s administration 10 calendar days to meet the demands or face legal action.
The original suit led to a 1999 settlement in which the state had to funnel $36.5 million to Cheyney for building and academic upgrades. Coard was vice president of the student government association at Cheyney when the suit was filed.
The coalition declined to say how much it was seeking from the state, though Coard indicated $250 million would be “a nice round number.”
Located on 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester counties, Cheyney - founded in 1837 and one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country - has struggled for years with low enrollment and funding woes as have many other historically black universities. It’s currently facing a $14 million deficit and enrolls 1,200 students, down from nearly 3,000 in 1977, the coalition said.
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.
The other 13 state universities, the group asserted, are running a $100 million surplus while Cheyney is operating in the red, Coard said.
“How can the whole group be up $100 million and the one black be down $14 million,” Coard asked. “Racism. That’s why we’re pushing this issue.”
In a statement, Peter Garland, acting chancellor of the state system, denied any discrimination against Cheyney and said the system has allotted Cheyney the highest per pupil funding of any of the state universities. In addition, the system has awarded Cheyney $70 million in capital funding over the last two years for a new residence hall and science center.
“Clearly, Cheyney University is treated fairly and equally in comparison to its other sister schools,” Garland said, also noting that the percentage of Cheyney’s budget covered by tuition and fees is smaller than at any of the universities.
Gov. Corbett’s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The group was joined by U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah, State Rep. Ronald Waters, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, also a Cheyney alumna, and state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, among others.
“We’re here for the long haul,” Blackwell said. “We want to fight the good fight to make sure Cheyney gets what it deserves.”
Also leading the press conference was Jeffrey K. Hart, an event planner and Cheyney alumnus who also was part of the 1980 suit as president of the student government association.
Alumni, he said in an interview after the press conference, have become increasingly concerned about the status of the university. One day he found himself amidst a heated discussion on the issue.
“I said well something has to be done. Let’s review our lawsuit,” he said. “I brought about 12 people together and decided this would be the action we’d take.”
Hart said if the group’s demands are not met, another press conference will be held in Harrisburg.
Malik Williams, 21, president of the Student Government Cooperative Association, said while Cheyney offers small classes, it’s buildings need upgrading and better equipment such as smartboards for classrooms.
“If we had more funding, we could build more things. We could grow,“ said Williams, a business administration major from Pittsburgh.
Coard's idea to seek $250 million for Cheyney is based on a civil rights suit in Maryland in which four historically black universities are seeking a total of $1 billion - an average of $250 million apiece.
In addition, the Cheyney group has called on the state system to revise its funding formula and exempt Cheyney from any “austerity measures” enacted at the other 13 universities as budgets are tightened. And if Cheyney develops a new program, the other 13 universities, particularly the nearby West Chester, should be prohibited from duplication, the group said.
“The 1999 agreement stated that there could be no duplication,” Coard said.
In its potential lawsuit, the group plans to target the state department of education and the state system of higher education in addition to the governor, Coard said.