When Dr. Michelle R. Howard-Vital became president of one of the nation’s oldest historically Black universities (HBCU) in 2007, she knew she “inherited a national treasure that has produced some extraordinary leaders.”
Howard-Vital also knew Cheyney University was riddled with debt, ending the fiscal year with a $2.16 million deficit in a $27 million budget. Cheyney, she says, was also grossly “misunderstood,” when it came to the caliber of its students and teaching. Furthermore, it was in a state of disrepair and lacking infrastructure. But this past June, Cheyney’s board of trustees announced the appointment of a five-member advisory panel chaired by H. Patrick Swygert, former president of Howard University.
In its yearlong appointment, the independent volunteer panel will focus its attention on helping Cheyney turn around its operations and academics, says Howard-Vital. She welcomes the extra external support and advice she receives from Swygert and the other panel members. “They can help us based on best practices from their own institutions,” she says of the panel, which has convened twice via conference call and gathered once on Cheyney’s campus when the group launched earlier this year.
In addition to Swygert, advisory panel members include Drs. Shirley A.R. Lewis, former president of Paine College; Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund; Frank G. Pogue, former president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; and Dr. Leonard L. Haynes III, former executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Howard-Vital says she usually participates in the panel’s meetings and often speaks to Swygert. Recently, when Howard-Vital presented Swygert with her idea to develop centers of excellence at Cheyney, which included one on teaching and learning, Swygert advised her to tie those plans to the workforce needs of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Howard-Vital says this strategy will make the centers and Cheyney more competitive and visible.
Swygert, in recent interviews with the Philadelphia Inquirer, said Cheyney, which largely attracts first-generation students and those from Philadelphia’s underperforming public schools, has long been underfunded. Stopping short of blaming money for the university’s challenges, Swygert did point out that Cheyney has not built a new dormitory in three decades. Swygert also said the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the community and alumni all share responsibility for shoring up and helping sustain the 172-year-old institution. During his tenure at Howard, where he now teaches law, Swygert led a $250 million capital campaign.
A year ago, Pennsylvania took control of the university’s finances as Cheyney languished in debt.
“Cheyney University has experienced significant fiscal and academic challenges in recent years,” says Dr. John C. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. But “the issue of equal funding is not a factor in Cheyney’s current situation nor has it been in the past.”
“In fact,” says Cavanaugh, “Cheyney University receives a significantly higher level of state funding per student than any other in the Pennsylvania higher education system ($13,100 per student this academic year compared with an average of $5,226 at the other 13 universities).”
Howard-Vital says state funding alone won’t suffice if Cheyney, one of the Commonwealth’s three smallest institutions with 1,500 students, is to thrive. What’s needed, says Howard-Vital, is “a robust program of private funding to provide the quality and number of services that the students and the Commonwealth deserve.”
Since 2007, Cheyney, with increased funding from the Office of the Chancellor, is emerging from its financial and academic woes. Hiring a vice president for student affairs and a financial aid director has been a part of Howard-Vital’s plan for fortifying the university’s leadership and resuscitating its infrastructure. In recent years, $7 million in unpaid student-tuition bills nearly crippled Cheyney financially, she says. There was no infrastructure in place to issue bills on time or to support students in applying for financial aid.
“These kinds of infrastructure problems have kept us small,” says Howard-Vital. But with new “aggressive budget controls” in place, she says, “the situation (at Cheyney) has improved immensely. The institution is on target to complete the year with a balanced budget.”
With a growing number of HBCUs struggling to keep from closing and to retain students, a high-profile panel of advisers could be the lifeline that many HBCUs need, says Howard-Vital. During the advisory panel’s term, Cavanaugh says he expects it to offer a variety of recommendations that will enable Cheyney University to continue making the progress necessary to ensure its students receive a quality education in a first-rate environment.
“Those recommendations could help form the basis for the university’s next strategic plan,” says Cavanaugh.