Shapiro’s support for Cheyney Univ. is welcome — and badly needed | Michael Coard

The HBCU needs equitable — not just equal — funding to make up for decades of racist underfunding

March 12, 2023 6:30 am

Cheyney University (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D’Onofrio)

Cheyney University- the oldest Black institution of higher education in America- was founded Feb. 25, 1837 and celebrated its 186th anniversary about a week ago.

As a proud alumnus of this historic university, I am pleased that Gov. Josh Shapiro is apparently a friend of Cheyney, who supports equitable (not merely equal) funding of the nation’s first HBCU, just as former Gov. Tom Wolf did.

In a July 29, 2017 column for The Philadelphia Tribune, I pointed out that Cheyney had “a friend in [Wolf ],who has told us that ‘Cheyney will not fail on his watch.’ In fact, Heeding Cheyney’s Call (HCC), which is the activist group leading the political, legal, and grassroots charge on the school’s behalf, recently sent him a detailed letter expressing our urgent concerns and requesting immediate and substantive action. He responded by indicating that HCC’s letter ‘resonated’ with him and that he has assembled a team of education experts who are working to save Cheyney [from then-dire financial-based accreditation problems].”

By the way, the “us” in the paragraph above is HCC, a group founded in 2013 by Cheyney alumni, including Junious Stanton, Prof. E. Sonny Harris (who passed away in 2015), and myself.

We filed a lawsuit in 2014 against former Gov. Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education seeking “parity through equity” because of  the state system’s — and Pennsylvania’s — decades of racist discrimination against Cheyney relative to the other 12 state-owned universities, all of which have a predominantly white student population. You can find more information about HCC, its activism, and its lawsuit here.

But we agreed to withdraw our lawsuit (“without prejudice,” meaning it can be refiled at any time) shortly after Wolf took office in 2015. And we did so because we discovered during confidential, off-the-record negotiations that he’s a man of his word who promised to keep Cheyney alive and to help it thrive.

Despite Wolf’s absolutely essential and much-appreciated assistance, Cheyney has continued to struggle due to decades of underfunding.

Therefore, it’s going to take additional assistance, this time from Gov. Shapiro, to provide sufficient- i.e., equitable- funding. In other words, he must provide enough funding to make up for decades of racist underfunding. In the $44.4 billion budget plan Shapiro unveiled last week, the state system gets a proposed appropriation of $563.5 million, up from current, approved spending of $552.4 million. 

And those decades of racist underfunding are proven by the following:    

1901– While Cheyney was a stand-alone teacher training school, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paid the full yearly tuition and stipend of $140 to white students to attend white state-owned teacher training schools but paid only $25 to Cheyney students.

1969– The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was identified by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the ten worst states (including the usual suspects, namely Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, et al) discriminating against Blacks in higher education.

1983– The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania- for the first time ever- finally submitted a formal anti-racial discrimination proposal that was deemed acceptable by the U.S. Department of Education following repeated warranted rejections. But it was later discovered that the proposal wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

1999– At the insistence of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania signed a contract to resolve issues of racial discrimination against Cheyney. Commonwealth officials signed that contract which, by 2023, should have resulted in over $100 million more to Cheyney for essential and long-denied resources. However, 24 years later, much of that $100 million is still contractually owed to Cheyney.

But we are confident that Shapiro will accept the baton handed to him by Wolf and do the right thing because he apparently has a track record of seeking to resolve state-sanctioned racial discrimination. 

That seems to be why, prior to Shapiro’s March 7 budget address, state Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, the chairperson of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus (PLBC), wrote to him stating that “with a commitment to fairly funding our schools …, we are hopeful that we can fulfill our constitutional commitment to an ‘equitable’ education for all children. We need to invest in our schools, thereby investing in our children.”

Lawmakers also were “encouraged by a commitment to higher education, and we want to be sure that our two HBCUs- Cheyney University and Lincoln University- receive … [required] attention and commitment,” Bullock continued.

I, like the PLBC, am encouraged by Shapiro’s apparent commitment to higher education in general and Cheyney (as well as Lincoln) in particular.

And my encouragement is based in part, for example, on his enthusiastic agreement to serve as the featured speaker at Cheyney’s 186th Founders’ Day event on campus on Friday, Feb. 24 (a day before that Saturday’s founding date). Unfortunately, due to the tragic homicide of Temple University Police Officer Christopher Fitzgerald, Gov. Shapiro’s presence was necessary at the Feb. 24 funeral instead.     

I believe Shapiro is a good guy who’ll do the right thing by pursuing “parity through equity” for Cheyney. In other words, I believe he’ll make up for lost time by providing America’s first HBCU with all the resources it needs, it deserves, and it’s owed. 

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.