By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — As financial and legal troubles batter Cheyney University, the school continues to have friends in high places.
Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers who represent the school in the General Assembly maintained their long-time support of the nation’s oldest historically Black university this week following a whistleblower complaint that alleges the school misused federal funding for scholarships.
“Cheyney University, as the nation’s first historically black university, is an important educational resource for many Pennsylvania students,” administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said in an email.
But as the university awaits a final determination of its accreditation status in November, which is essential to its survival, state officials deflected questions about their long-term financial commitments to the school.
Abbott said the governor continues to work with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, of which Cheyney is a member, to support the university’s effort to balance its budget and “transform as an organization.” He did not respond to questions regarding the school’s accreditation status and funding for the school going forward.
State system spokesman David Pidgeon declined to comment on Cheyney due to the ongoing legal complaint and accreditation process.
“I’m not going to think about the negative,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said. “I’m only going to think about and concentrate on the positives in trying to help the university.”
Hughes and Wolf helped Cheyney get a 2.2 percent increase in funding in this year’s state budget after a high-level discussion with Cheyney officials in February.
But Cheyney already owed the state system, which includes 14 schools, $43 million and remains under federal monitoring over the handling of its federal scholarship funds. state system officials have already agreed to forgive the bulk of the debt — $30 million — if Cheyney hits certain benchmarks in the coming years.
Republican state Sen. Tom Killion, whose Delaware County-based seat includes Cheyney, doubts the state system will ever see that money.
“That’s gone,” he said. “They’re not going to pay that.”
Killion said his biggest concern was the school’s accreditation status. The loss of accreditation “could be the end of the university,” he said.
“I don’t see how you survive without accreditation,” Killion said.
State System Chancellor Daniel Greenstein has said it is highly likely Cheyney will lose its accreditation this year.
If Cheyney loses its accreditation, the university cannot participate in federal aid programs, cutting off millions of dollars in federal funding. A majority of the school’s first-time students received federal grants (72%) or loan aid (78 percent) in the 2017-18 school year, according to federal data.
Both Hughes and Killion declined to comment on whether they would continue to support Cheyney’s state funding if it loses accreditation. The school received a total of $13.4 million in state funding this year.
“If things don’t go well, we’ll cross the bridge at that time,” Hughes said.
Robert Bogle, the president of The Philadelphia Tribune, is the chairman of the university’s council of trustees.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the regional accrediting body, put Cheyney on probation in 2015 over financial oversight violations, among other things.
The commission has extended Cheyney’s accreditation twice, and there is no mechanism for a third extension. The commission will meet in November to provide a final ruling on Cheyney’s accreditation status.
If the commission removes Cheyney’s accreditation, it likely won’t happen immediately. The commission could extend the accreditation for a limited time as the university implements a “teach-out plan” to allow students to complete their education or transfer.
The school has made progress this year.
Cheyney officials have said they expect to log a $2.1 million surplus this year in their proposed $26 million budget, which the state system will review in October. School administrators have declined requests to review the budget.
Freshman enrollment jumped to 227 this year compared to 105 students during the 2018-19 school year when enrollment plummeted 38 percent.
Administrators also have said the school and its foundation raised more than $4 million in donations this year, although internal school documents the school released after a Right to Know request from the Tribune seem to contradict those figures.
A whistleblower lawsuit by a former Cheyney employee, which was filed in federal court in July and revealed last week, alleged school administrators misused federal education dollars, raided a scholarship program to pay university employee salaries, awarded full scholarships to undeserving students and inflated enrollment figures in an effort to save the school’s accreditation.
School administrators have declined to comment on the allegations due to the pending litigation.
Sharif El-Mekki, a Cheyney alumnus and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Black Educator Development, said Cheyney’s ongoing struggles left him “frustrated and hopeful.”
“It’s heartbreaking to think about where [Cheyney] is right now,” he said, but he noted “positive trends” at the school in recent months.
El-Mekki’s nonprofit has partnered with Cheyney in the past on teacher-education programs.
Cheyney was once a prestigious teachers college that provided a valuable pipeline of African-American educators to Philadelphia and the region, El-Mekki said, but that reputation has diminished.
“It is a shell of its former self,” he said, “and I think a big part of our struggle in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania with teacher diversity is Cheyney’s struggles. So we are tied to Cheyney’s success and struggles in our teacher pipeline across the state.”