Since becoming president of Cheyney University in November of 2017, Aaron Walton has pushed a plan to balance the country’s first HBCU (Historical Black College/University) institution’s budget and reverse a ten-year decline in enrollment.
In August, the Chester County-based institution announced in a statement that the budget would have a surplus of $2.1 million, in large part thanks to an alumni fundraising initiative. Additionally, Walton planned to cut underperforming academic programs as well as staff positions in what the HBCU’s president touted as an “expenditure reduction plan” in an August 15 statement.
However, on Tuesday, Oct. 22, when the university’s budget was given to the PASSHE Board of Governors for approval, the numbers were not adding up upon the first examination.
According to an Oct. 26 article from the Philadelphia Tribune, PASSHE spokesman David Pidgeon declined to comment on the specifics at this time as to why there was a discrepancy between what Cheyney reported versus the story the budget figures told.
The proposal was given to PASSHE, however, does not account for donations that may aid in the HBCU’s attempt to balance their budget.
What makes Cheyney’s attempt to balance the budget crucial is an upcoming meeting in Philadelphia on Nov. 21 of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) regarding the accreditation status of the long-struggling institution.
For any college or university wanting to maintain legitimacy with course credits for transferring purposes to other institutions, conferring of undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as maintaining federal funding for student financial assistance, accreditation is essential.
In the case of Cheyney University, where more than 75 percent of students receive some form of federal aid money according to their website, this makes their accreditation status exponentially more vital.
In MSCHE’s accreditation criteria, one of the requirements to maintain status listed in Standard VI, Article Seven is: “an annual independent audit confirming financial viability with evidence of followup on any concerns cited in the audit’s accompanying management letter.”
For the smallest school in the PASSHE system, Cheyney’s struggles with financial viability go back over a decade.
In a 2008 performance audit published by the state’s auditor general, Jack Wagner, that covered financial years 2004-07, it was found that there were serious errors in record-keeping regarding “service purchase contracts, credit card purchases, travel expenditures, canceled and relocated classes, and the Student Government Association’s meeting notes and budget.”
These institutional mistakes compounded over years of mismanagement, paired with a ten-year decline in state funding for the PASSHE system since the recession of 2009, has left the 182-year-old institution in a fight for its’ livelihood.
Despite the recent adversity, Cheyney has seen a 32 percent increase in enrollment from last year, with the student population reaching 618 students according to an Oct. 8 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Additionally, 70 percent of last year’s freshman class was retained, reaching a 20 year high for the university.
This uptick is another key break for an institution looking to make a case for maintaining accreditation.
When PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein spoke at ESU on Oct 21, he cited the upcoming MSCHE meeting as a crucial turning point for the HBCU member of the state system.
“If [Cheyney is ] not accredited there’s one path, and if they’re not, there’s another,” he said.
Although the overall fate of the school is in limbo until the third week of November, Greenstein remained optimistic about its’ place in the PASSHE system.
“I can say that my hope and certainly the hope of the board, hope, and belief, is that Cheney will continue to be a vibrant, important part of the system, playing a vital role for the state and for the students that it serves,” Greenstein said.“There’s no question that that should continue. What that looks like I think is going to be the question.”
The metamorphosis for Cheyney is already beginning as the university has already signed partnerships to create “The Institute for Contemporary African-American Studies” according to the university’s website. Listed partners include Starbucks, who has already contributed $100,000 in grant money toward the initiative, Thomas Jefferson University, and Epcot Crenshaw Corporation.
While the accreditation and future of America’s first HBCU Cheyney University, hangs in the balance, the institution continues undeterred toward a future not yet fully set in stone.
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