In Greek mythology, the phoenix bird rises from the despair of destruction to the ecstasy of excellence. Although that is an apt reference to the great news announced at a March 5 press conference by Cheyney University at its state-of-the-art Science Center, an even better and even more culturally applicable reference is “And Still I Rise,” which is Maya Angelou’s 1978 poem about rising above the obstacles white society places upon its Black members. In it, she proclaims,
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
And Cheyney- the oldest Black institution of higher learning in America, having been founded in 1837- rises, thanks to the following:
1. Cheyney’s on-campus Institute for the Contemporary African-American Experience, which is a cultural solutions-oriented think tank involving a collaboration with the likes of Thomas Jefferson University’s Medical College that will build a medical facility on campus, Epcot Crenshaw Corporation that will relocate its environmental consulting headquarters on campus, Starbucks Foundation, a hotel chain that is discussing plans to construct a hotel/conference center on campus, and other powerful public/private partners to promote the academic, employment, and community service interests of Cheyney students.
2. Cheyney’s distinguished “Keystone Honors Academy” that is a far-reaching academic excellence program fostering intellectually enriching experiences for students with impressive GPAs. In addition, it positions students to receive Bond-Hill Scholarships that provide for complete tuition funding to attend state graduate programs in the fields of medicine, law, education, and business.
3. Cheyney’s new $23 million 43,000 square foot state-of-the-art Science Center.
Good news? Yes! Great news? Absolutely! So why is Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Chancellor Daniel Greenstein raining on Cheyney’s parade with his malicious at worst or reckless at best comments to the state legislature and the media? For example, on February 21, he said everyone must “acknowledge the likelihood that (Cheyney) university will lose accreditation.” As a result, he continued, Cheyney should consider being downgraded to a type of non-degree vocational status or being swallowed up as a small subsidiary (like a colony) of one of the larger (i.e., white) state universities.
Doesn’t the Chancellor understand the historic importance of HBCUs — especially the oldest one in America? Doesn’t he understand they came into existence because Blacks were excluded from white colleges and universities? Doesn’t he understand that despite the fact that there are only 100 HBCUs, which constitutes just three percent of this country’s colleges and universities, they nonetheless produce 20 percent of Black graduates in all majors and 25 percent of Black graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors? Doesn’t he understand that HBCUs provide a stable and nurturing environment for- generally speaking- first generation, low-income Black students? Doesn’t he understand that HBCUs present Black students with positive administrative and faculty role models who, by definition, promote the self-confidence needed to be prepared for the racism graduating students will encounter in America’s professional world?
Also, in regard to Cheyney in particular, doesn’t he understand how it wound up in its current predicament? If he doesn’t, I’ll tell him now:
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 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, 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 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 signed a contract to resolve issues of racial discrimination against Cheyney. Commonwealth officials signed that contract which, by last year, should’ve resulted in at least $100 million to Cheyney for essential resources including attractive academic courses, quality administrators, new buildings, etc. However, 20 years later, most of that $100 million is still contractually owed to Cheyney.
That’s the context he should consider before playing the “Debbie Downer” role each time things begin looking up for Cheyney. By the way, Cheyney will NOT lose its accreditation. And that’s because the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the accrediting authority, is concerned only with these three questions:
1. Has Cheyney’s “financial resources, funding base, and plans to assure long-term financial stability” continued to sufficiently improve?
2. Has the “implementation of budget reductions agreed to as part of the PASSHE-authorized debt forgiveness plan” sufficiently continued?
3. Has Cheyney continued to take sufficient steps to “resolve the $29.6 million potential liability to the U.S. Department of Education?”
The answers are yes, yes, and yes. In fact, MSCHE has already used phrases like “compelling evidence” and “significant progress” to describe Cheyney’s amazing turnaround. That’s a great sign in connection with MSCHE’s upcoming decision in November. And MSCHE will be quite impressed to know that applications for admission to Cheyney are higher than at any time in the past ten years with offers extended to more than 1,500 students in 2019 compared to only 351 last year. It’ll also be quite impressed with the aforementioned public/private partnerships. Additionally, it’ll be quite impressed that Cheyney is on a path to a balanced budget in the 2019 fiscal year after a nearly $8 million expenditure reduction plan along with a “Resurgence” fundraising plan led by alumni.
Speaking of that “Resurgence” fundraising plan, Cheyney needs to raise at least $4 million by June in order to help guarantee its continued existence forever. As a member of Heeding Cheyney’s Call (, I encourage alums and other Cheyney supporters to participate in what we’re calling #4Million4Ever. You can participate by donating $1,000 or $500 or $100 or just $18.37 to the Cheyney Sustainability Fund at the Cheyney University Foundation, 1837 University Circle, Cheyney, PA 19319.
As Sistah Maya concluded in her poem,
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave
I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise. I rise. I rise.
Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1-FM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.