Philadelphia should invite Cheyney University of Pennsylvania to return here, the county where the school was founded — and maybe even give it free or cheap land and a few buildings to get started.
It may sound ridiculous – give away valuable land and maybe property to tax-exempt organizations? Is that fair to residents, existing city higher-education institutions, or other businesses in the area?
Yes, I’d argue, it is fair. And it’s a smart investment for the city and region.
There was a time when Philadelphia was the “Workshop of the World,” creating goods that were delivered across the country and around the world. As recently as 1970, 26% of the city’s population worked in manufacturing, equating to more than 400,000 people.
Clearly, those days are gone. About 50,000 manufacturing jobs remain, but we lose those positions all too frequently. We don’t make much here anymore, and that means there are fewer opportunities for people without college degrees or technical training. That partly explains the high poverty rate and the crime that follows.
With health care tied to education, the “eds and meds” sector is now the largest in the Greater Philadelphia region, offering jobs that range from service work to surgery.
Not only could the sector further grow and employ more Philadelphians, it’s an industry that could be harnessed to reinvent the city as an education hub – as opposed to Cheesesteak City, a place where you will get mugged or shot, or a place where our sports fans will throw stuff at you if you suck.
The thing is, we already are a college town.
There are more than a dozen universities in the city educating more than 125,000 people annually, according to Campus Philly, a nonprofit advocacy group that sees education as a path to regional economic growth. They estimate that 54% of the college students will stay in the Greater Philadelphia region, as compared with 42% of Boston metro students staying nearby.
So why do we need Cheyney?
Forty-three percent of the 1.5 million people in Philadelphia are Black or African American, and the vast majority of them do not hold college degrees. That limits their employment opportunities. Black students can attend any college, of course, but HBCUs tend to offer a greater sense of community and more support than students might find at predominantly white institutions.
Only about 13% of Temple University’s undergraduates are African American and about 8% of the University of Pennsylvania’s students identify as Black or African American. Both schools have long-standing Black communities adjacent to their campuses, but the relationships with those communities are often tense. Those areas are among the poorest in the city.
Cheyney began in Philadelphia County as the African Institute in 1837, though the name was quickly changed to the Institute for Colored Youth. The school, which educated the likes of Octavius Catto and Julian Abele, moved toward Chester County around the turn of the 19th century.
Over the last 10 years, Cheyney has seen a decline in the number of students that seems to have stabilized at about 600 after years of serving about 1,500 annually. In recent years, about half of its incoming students have been from Philadelphia.
» READ MORE: Can Cheyney University survive? (from November 2017)
The school, which owes the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education about $43 million and has very little if anything as an endowment, is sitting on 275 acres in an area where million-dollar homes sit on acre-size lots. The university could likely sell its property for at least $50 million and have an instant endowment.
Location, location, location
Cheyney would need a place to go. The obvious location is the Navy Yard, just south of the sports complex.
The city took control of the 1,200-acre property after the Navy closed operations in 1996. There were ambitious master plans created in 2004 and 2013, but both included loads of office space. Only about one-third of the existing real estate is occupied or in development. Given the work-from-home movement created by the coronavirus pandemic, there is likely much less interest in building new office space.
It’s a perfect location for Cheyney, which has a new emphasis on life sciences and technology.
Have you been down there lately? The Navy Yard is beautiful, with some grand old buildings, wide, tree-lined roads, and a long walkway along the Delaware River. It would be an amazing college campus, one that is surrounded by 170 companies, including the headquarters of Urban Outfitters and GSK-US.
There are even buildings that could be repurposed into dorms, classrooms, laboratories, and the needed amenities, like workout spaces and cafeterias.
So much more could exist, though.
The Navy Yard could be an intercollegiate innovation campus where STEM research is done by students from Penn, Drexel, Temple, La Salle, and other city schools, as well as by students from across the country and around the world. Penn State established a campus there, where it offers graduate business classes and corporate training.
How about using that campus to attract students from other Pennsylvania schools for one or two semesters? They could do internships in the city, participate in research projects, and maybe take classes at the new Cheyney Navy Yard campus?
Having such an opportunity – think of it as similar to a semester abroad, a Philadelphia semester – could be a selling point for colleges like Millersville, Lehigh, Lafayette, Franklin & Marshall, and maybe even Penn State’s main campus, even if only for summer programs. A model for such a program exists in the Kyoto Consortium, which involves 13 U.S. colleges sharing resources through one Japanese university.
We have the infrastructure in place.
Making the historic Cheyney University the centerpiece for a new project at the Navy Yard would create an educational experience for Philadelphians and others that cannot be matched – and one that would not gentrify an established neighborhood. It would continue to foster the workforce of the future and attract next-generation companies. It would bring countless intelligent young people to the city, and hopefully they’d stay.
It would breathe new life into Cheyney at a time when it desperately needs it.
This would not create competition for the existing Philadelphia colleges, as these new students are ones who would likely not otherwise do four years in the city. Shoot, some of the visiting students might even transfer to Philly colleges.
And it wouldn’t cost the city much. It would simply give away land and property not currently used.
I hope so. This could transform the city and region, and maybe higher education.
George W. Miller III is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University. He is pursuing a doctorate in higher-education leadership at Wilmington University.