State system appoints board member as new interim president for Cheyney

Cheyney University has a new interim president — a longtime member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s board of governors, who co-chaired a task force this spring charged with charting a new course for Cheyney.

Aaron A. Walton, a former senior vice president of Highmark Inc., took over immediately from Frank G. Pogue, who had been interim president since November 2014, the state system announced Wednesday.

Cheyney, a historically black university, is looking to remake itself and recover from long-running financial problems and low enrollment.

The task force report, also released by the state system Wednesday,  recommended aggressive student advising, new academic programming and procedures, a feasibility study on the possibility of selling off or leasing some of the university’s unused land to raise revenue, and the elimination of NCAA Division II sports in favor of less costly intramural team and club sports.

It also noted low achievement at Cheyney as measured by graduation rates and deep money woes.

“For decades, Cheyney University’s graduation rate has been about two-thirds lower than the rest of the state system,” the report said. “Currently, only 7.9 percent of students graduate in four years, and 17.5 percent graduate in six years. Cheyney University’s students deserve better.”

The university, the report said, has been running a deficit since 2011-12 and has relied on more than $30 million in credit from the state system. Because of its financial problems, Cheyney remains on probation by the agency that accredits colleges and universities.

Walton, 70, also a longtime member of the Council of Trustees of California University, another state system school, will be responsible for using the task force report to help the university define a new, sustainable model, said Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the state system. Walton will be paid $248,000 a year.

The task force recommendations already have proven controversial. In a press release titled “Rebirth or Death of Historic Cheyney University,” Michael Coard, a Philadelphia lawyer, called a public meeting for 7 p.m. Monday at Zion Baptist Church, Broad and Venango Streets, to discuss the proposals.

Walton, who had a 40-plus year career at Highmark in the Pittsburgh area, resigned both his posts on the board of governors and California’s council of trustees, the state system said.

Walton has a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology from California University and a master’s degree in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University.

“Cheyney University is in the midst of a major transition toward a new operational model, even as it faces unprecedented challenges to its long-term sustainability. It needs strong leadership now more than ever,”  Board of Governors chair Cynthia K. Shapira said in a statement. “Aaron has a strong track record of leadership. As a member of both the Board of Governors for more than a decade and of the Council of Trustees at Cal U. for more than 20 years, he understands the enormous challenges facing higher education today, including those uniquely affecting Cheyney.”

He will serve in the role until a national search for a permanent replacement, expected to begin this summer, is finished, the system said. Walton, who was traveling to the area from Florida on Wednesday, was not available for comment.

Identifying a permanent leader as soon as possible was one of several recommendations from the Cheyney task force. The group also proposed that the university develop an applied research institute focusing on race, ethnicity, and social justice.

The university should have 10 to 12 majors – it currently has 17 active majors – be organized in four clusters, and include “first-year experience” courses to help students transition to college,  the report said. New emphasis  should be placed on leadership, internships, study abroad, and service learning, the report said.

The task force also emphasized the need for strong fund-raising and cost savings. It recommends that the university consider closing some buildings no longer in use and the possibility of selling or leasing some land or entering into joint ventures. The university is situated on 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester Counties and is owned by the state.

The state system’s faculty union expressed concern about the lack of faculty on the task force and the university’s new leader.

“We want Cheyney University to thrive, and we wish Aaron Walton success,” Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said in a statement. “However, we are concerned about his lack of experience, top-down management, and lack of faculty input in this process.”