West Chester and Cheyney - two universities in the state's higher education system - are planning "a new level of collaboration" on academics and operations, their presidents announced this week in a joint e-mail to staff, students and alumni.

Officials from both schools insist the move is not a precursor for a merger between Cheyney, a historically black university that has struggled financially, and nearby West Chester, which is growing and thriving. More than a year ago, West Chester officials had considered breaking off from the state system in part because they thought they were losing money to weaker schools.

The e-mail from West Chester president Greg Weisenstein and Cheyney interim president Frank Pogue had no details on potential areas for collaboration but said they would benefit both schools.

"We've identified several administrative support functions that we want to explore further," said Sheilah Vance, chief of staff and deputy to Cheyney's president. She declined to offer specifics.

"We're in the very early stages of discussion," said West Chester spokeswoman Pam Sheridan. "Whatever the outcome, both schools will operate as independent institutions."

Sheridan said the universities released a statement because the presidents did not want people to hear about it and speculate.

Officials said the move was prompted by years of flat state funding that has hurt the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and spawned other collaborative partnerships. East Stroudsburg and Kutztown Universities this month announced a joint approach to purchasing.

The West Chester-Cheyney partnership was not a directive from State System Chancellor Frank T. Brogan, said Kenn Marshall, system spokesman. But Brogan applauds the effort, he said.

"As neighbors, Cheyney and West Chester Universities are natural partners," Brogan said. "Collaboration is key to our success as a system."

Cheyney and West Chester are only six miles apart, but their financial and enrollment pictures are radically different.

With about 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students, West Chester has become the largest school in the system.

In contrast, Cheyney in the last year has faced a $12.3 million deficit and falling enrollment. It was at 1,022 students last fall. Vance said she had no current enrollment figures, adding, "We're working on building our enrollment."

A Cheyney alumni group in October revived a decades-old civil rights lawsuit against the state and federal governments, claiming a lack of fair funding was starving Cheyney.

Marshall, the state system spokesman, said the collaboration was not in response to that suit. Areas of collaboration, he said, could include sharing areas such as financial aid, which Cheyney recently outsourced.

Robert Bogle, chairman of Cheyney's board of trustees, said he supports efforts to collaborate.

"All of our schools should be looking at this," he said. "The state system ought to be looking at pooling the resources of all 14 institutions."

Cheyney and West Chester have collaborated previously. Their students can take courses at either institution, and they offer a joint educational leadership certificate and a marine science concentration program.

Asked how the new partnership might benefit West Chester, Sheridan said the university is rather landlocked and Cheyney has 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester Counties.

Faculty union officials at both universities said they knew little about the proposal. That's a mistake by administrators, said Mark Rimple, incoming faculty union president at West Chester.

"You have two campuses and two faculties," said Rimple, a music professor, "and they really ought to be in the loop from the beginning."