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Campus preservation is at the forefront of Cheyney University’s new rebuilding efforts

CHEYNEY, Pa. —When he peers out the window of his conference room, Cheyney University President Dr. W. Clinton Pettus sees a few things he doesn’t like.
First, there is the large blue water tower that looms above the center of this rustic campus, 20 miles west of Philadelphia. It has not been painted in years. Next comes a dingy, gray brick building, its floors sunken and its usefulness long past.
But even more troubling is the state of disrepair into which five historic buildings on Cheyney’s picturesque Quadrangle have fallen. Each built of stone hauled from local quarries a century ago, they are the physical underpinnings of Cheyney’s long history.
One day soon, that water tower will be gone and that ugly gray brick building will be leveled into a grassy lawn. As for those historic structures on the Quad, they will once again become the focal point of campus life.
Big changes are in store for Cheyney University, which last year reached a long-sought agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the State System of Higher Education — which owns the school — and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. According to the agreement, Cheyney will receive $41.5 million over the next five years to restore the Quad buildings and to fund an aggressive academic scholarship program.
Just last month, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved $1 million for historic preservation efforts here. Cheyney, established in 1837, is renovating several historically significant buildings on campus. The oldest building, Melrose Cottage, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and three other buildings are awaiting that designation.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who announced the funding last month, says Cheyney is not only a historic treasure but also “a symbol of the aspirations of many African Americans to succeed in a time when achieving greatness was only a dream.”
Today, with enrollment on the rise and an infrastructural face-lift on the way, the nation’s oldest institution of higher education for Blacks is poised to face the millennium as a whole new campus.
The funds could not have come at a better time. The university has realized a solid
5-percent-per-year increase in enrollment, from 1,430 in 1996 when Pettus took the helm as president to 1,820 last semester. In the same time span, Cheyney also was able to dispose of its nagging budget deficit and to hire a string of new administrators.
“We knew that whatever we decided to do (with the money from the agreement) should be central to what we were already trying to do,” Pettus says. “It should not be an add-on, but something that fits with our history, our mission and the culture of this institution.”
Cheyney is one of 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s state-run system.
In 1998, federal and state representatives visited the school and a number of other state-owned universities and concluded that Cheyney continued to lag behind the others in quality of campus facilities.
“The condition of the facilities at Cheyney didn’t measure up,” says Wendella P. Fox, director of the Philadelphia department of the Office of Civil Rights. “Some buildings were in such bad disrepair they couldn’t be used because they were unsafe.”
Pettus, who participated in the discussions, says he felt Cheyney benefited by reaching an amicable agreement without going to court.
“It was delightful to be part of the process,” he says. “It seems to me a change occurred after people came and listened to our vision.”
For Pettus, the building project is far more than just an administrative indulgence of an “edifice” complex.
“I had this notion that the center of action should be on the Quadrangle again,” he says.
Pettus recalls first visiting Cheyney himself in the early 1990s. A number of newer buildings had been erected on the upper end of the campus in the 1970s and 1980s. Those were all that he had seen on his first visit, and it wasn’t until he returned to work at Cheyney a few months later, he says, that he discovered the beauty of the Quad.
“I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t the first thing I (saw),” he says. “If these are hallowed grounds, then the Quadrangle is most hallowed.”
He later learned that while the buildings on the Quad retained their majesty on the outside, on the inside they were a jumble of broken plaster, fallen ceilings and rotted wooden floors.
Cheyney will spend $36.5 million over the next five years to refurbish five Quad buildings and do other physical enhancements on the 275-acre campus. Work on one of those structures, Biddle Hall, already is under way. When completed, the buildings will house a new administration center, a student services center, the registrar and admissions office and other functions designed to draw foot traffic back to the center of the campus.
One of the buildings, Emlen Hall, will become the on-campus home of the Keystone Honors Academy.
Over the next five years, Cheyney plans to award up to $5 million in scholarship funds to attract academically achieving students, a staggering sum in light of the fact that at one point the school considered $100,000 in scholarships to be a good year.
Though the Honors Academy was in place two years before the agreement was reached, the infusion of cash has helped boost the program’s enrollment to more than 80 students. Plans call for up to 200 students a year to be involved.
“We want to attract a cadre of youngsters who are known for being good students,” Pettus says. “These are the folks who will provide the formal and informal leadership on the campus.”
How well the transformation now under way at Cheyney will service the university in the years to come remains to be seen. Pettus, for one, says his only lament is that at times, “Things just don’t move as fast as I would like.”
Still, he says, he is optimistic.
“Anybody who looks back at where we were a decade or so ago would have to say that we are getting there,” he says.  

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