Cheyney University on Thursday announced the abrupt retirement of its president, Michelle R. Howard-Vital, and said her successor would take over on Monday.
Vital has led the historically black university that straddles Delaware and Chester counties for the last seven years - a longer tenure than some local presidents have had in recent years.
But the university's deficit has grown under her watch and enrollment hasn't increased, causing concern among faculty.
"I think that Dr. Vital was absolutely an academician who did a lot of good things at Cheyney," said Robert Bogle, chair of Cheyney's board of trustees. "...Some of the things this university does face, has faced, will face, she certainly could not control. She tried to grapple with and overcome these issues. Some she could, some she couldn't."
Though Vital's official retirement date is July 31, she won't finish out her last few weeks as president, the university said. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, who has served as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Cheyney since August, will become acting president effective Monday, the university said.
Vital won't represent the university at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's board of governors' meeting on Monday, the university said. Dawkins will fill that role.
Vital will "spend the rest of this month helping Dr. Dawkins make a smooth transition," the university said in a press release.
Neither Vital or Dawkins were available for comment on the sudden transition, said Gwen Owens, a university spokeswoman said.
Bogle, also president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper, said Vital chose to retire after discussions with Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the 14-university state system of which Cheyney is a part.
The State System declined to answer why Vital departed.
"As you know, we don't comment on personnel matters, but certainly appreciate her service to the university and wish her well in retirement," said system spokesman Kenn Marshall.
Vital, 61, said in statement from the university that it was time for her to leave.
"With graduation over, the new science center about to open to provide STEM opportunities for scores of students in the years to come, and having just led the university through a successful Middle States Self-Study visit in April, now seemed to be the perfect time for me to step down and get back to my home and relatives in North Carolina," Vital, 61, said in a prepared statement. "Biblical scholars say the number 7 in the Bible signifies completion. My last day will come on my seventh anniversary. Cheyney University has been a challenging and rewarding experience that I will cherish. I leave knowing that I've accomplished much to benefit the university."
Vital plans to pursue personal and professional interests in North Carolina, the university said.
Cheyney has struggled with low enrollment and deficits for years, as have many historically black universities. When she began at Cheyney in 2007, the deficit was between $4 million and $6 million, Bogle said. By last September, it had risen to $14 million. Bogle was unsure of the latest figure.
Asked whether he thought Vital was responsible for the growth in the deficit, he said: "Some of it, yes. Some of it, no."
Enrollment was about 1,200 less than a year into her tenure. Bogle said it remains at about that level.
A group of elected officials and a coalition of Cheyney students and alumni last September said they were planning to restart a 33-year-old federal civil-rights suit against the state unless Gov. Corbett's administration provided additional funding to help the school. Located on 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester Counties, Cheyney was founded in 1837 and is one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country.
Cheyney is known for giving underprivileged inner-city students a chance at a college education that other schools may not. More than half of Cheyney's students hail from Philadelphia.
Under Vital's leadership, the university opened its first residence hall in more than 30 years and restored the oldest building on campus, Humphreys Hall, to a residence hall for students. The new $22 million science center and planetarium is near completion and the university expanded its program in Center City Philadelphia, the university noted.
Vital was active on social media - she was on Twitter - and helped the university develop a monthly online blog, a monthly digital newsletter and a presence on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
But Vital faced a rough start when she took over in July 2007. Less than a year into her presidency, she faced allegations of mismanaging finances and the support-staff union called for her ouster at a rally.
Her husband, Geri R. Vital, who was a lecturer in Cheyney's Graphic Design Program, also will retire, the university said.
Dawkins, who will serve as acting president until an interim is appointed, previously served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs and professor of education/psychology at Dillard University in New Orleans. During four years at Dillard, she also served as associate provost, associate vice president for academic affairs and the director for the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Technology.
Previously, she was the chief academic/administrative officer and dean of the College of Professional Studies at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where she also had served as interim vice president for academic affairs, chair and a professor of physical education.