Corbett's chief counsel tells Cheyney group litigation would be a mistake

Gov. Corbett’s chief counsel on Thursday offered to enter into a discussion about the future of the financially-strapped Cheyney University, but warned an alumni and student group that litigation would be a mistake.

 “A forthright discussion about these issues would be more beneficial than lengthy and costly litigation over claims of discrimination, which are clearly not supported by the facts and would not advance higher education in Pennsylvania – at Cheyney or elsewhere,” James D. Schultz, Corbett’s chief counsel, wrote in a letter to Michael Coard, the lawyer representing the Cheyney alumni group.

Last week, Coard, a group of elected officials and a coalition of Cheyney students and alumni said they would restart a 33-year-old federal civil-rights suit against the state unless Corbett's administration provides additional funding to help the deficit-plagued, historically black state school survive.

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 said.

In his letter, Schultz asserted that Cheyney actually is given more funding than the other universities and a variety of other extra support in consulting, capital program funding and other areas. If the group sues, the state is prepared to supply the proof, Schultz wrote.

“Cheyney currently receives almost three times as much in state appropriations per student than the other 13 universities,” Schultz wrote.

 Cheyney also received $70 million from the state to build a new residence hall and science building, he said.

 “The Commonwealth’s investment of $118,000 per-pupil in capital projects at Cheyney is more than 10 times that of the other PASSHE universities,” he wrote.

 From 2007-08 to 2009-10, when the university was struggling financially, the state system provided Cheyney with $2.3 million in consulting and staff support.

 Cheyney subsequently operated without a deficit for 2009-10 and 2010-11, he said. The university currently, however, has a $14 million deficit and has been hit particularly hard by changes in federal student aid that have made it harder for Cheyney students to attend.

 The state system also in the past gave Cheyney a $2.1 million loan which has since been paid back and $1.5 million to support the university’s expansion into center city Philadelphia, Schultz wrote.

 “This level of assistance has not been provided to any other PASSHE institution,” Schultz wrote.

 The Cheyney group had given Corbett 10 days to respond to demands they issued at a press conference.

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 historically black universities. It faces 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 not. More than half of Cheyney's students hail from Philadelphia.

The original suit led to a 1999 settlement in which the state funneled $36.5 million to Cheyney for building and academic upgrades.