HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Advocates for the nation's first historically black college took their message to the Pennsylvania Capitol on Tuesday to press officials to help save it amid a dire financial situation that they say results from decades of discrimination.
State university system officials countered that Cheyney University has been treated fairly — it is getting nearly four times the per-pupil average in state aid for the system's other 13 universities — and that the system is working on various fronts to help the school.
Founded in 1837, Cheyney now enrolls about 700 undergraduate and graduate students, about half what it had in 2009. Last December, Pennsylvania's auditor general warned that the survival of the suburban Philadelphia school was in doubt.
Cheyney supporters say the resolution of a 1980 lawsuit against the state coupled with a 1999 agreement between the state and the U.S. Office for Civil Rights was supposed to bring parity to Cheyney's funding and facilities. But they say little has still been done to ensure that Cheyney has competitive academic programs and facilities, and they filed another federal lawsuit last year.
"We are here to seek justice, we are here to right wrongs," Junious Stanton, a founding member of the group Heed Cheyney's Call, told demonstrators. "We are here to make education a priority. We are here to save Cheyney University."
Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said the system is looking at ways it can help Cheyney develop appropriate programs and student services to help it rebuild its enrollment.
"It's going to take a lot of work, and we're committed to that," Marshall said.
The system is already providing a lot of staff support to Cheyney, and the university — the smallest in the 14-member system — has received significantly more capital funds over the past decade than any other school in the system.
But advocates say perhaps the biggest problem is that the formula for funding the state schools is still skewed against smaller ones like Cheyney. Little has changed, and there has been little progress in talks to resolve the latest lawsuit, supporters said.
"They're dragging their feet and now we're going to make it public," said Jeffrey Hart, a 1982 graduate of Cheyney who helped file the original lawsuit in 1980. "The sad part is that we're still here doing this after all these years."
Cheyney is also facing another financial bomb: Auditors found that Cheyney did not properly document the eligibility of students before giving them nearly $30 million in federal grants and loans in the last four years, and the school is waiting to hear from the federal government whether it will have to pay it back.
The school's budget this year is about $25 million.