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At Lincoln U., calls for change growing louder

Its alumni include Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice; poet Langston Hughes; and the first presidents of Ghana and Nigeria. It draws students from more than 30 states and 25 countries.

Its alumni include Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice; poet Langston Hughes; and the first presidents of Ghana and Nigeria. It draws students from more than 30 states and 25 countries.

But these days Lincoln University, the first degree-granting historically black college or university, is in turmoil, say some alumni; current and former faculty and staff; and students, a group of whom staged a sit-in last week at the southern Chester County school. They had voiced their frustrations to administrators at a town-hall meeting the week before.

At a school that has had three presidents since 2014 and a host of interim appointees in other positions, students wanted to know why so many administrators, staff, and teachers are leaving, including academic advisers assigned to guide students to graduation. They complained of limited resources for academic departments and sports teams, of academic buildings closing too early, of facilities that need upgrades.

"We decided to fight for us to have a better university," said Darriyante Johnson, a junior at the 162-year-old school, which was known as the "Black Princeton" in its early years. "This is an opportunity for us as students to say, 'Enough is enough.' "

Kimberly Lloyd, chair of the university's board of trustees and an alumna, said administrators were hearing most of the complaints for the first time.

"I don't take lightly their concerns. Or the faculty's concerns," she said, promising administrators and the Student Government Association will address them.

Last week's sit-in of a couple dozen students came a few weeks after a group of students, parents, alumni, and faculty called for Lloyd's ouster, saying that she has taken insufficient action to address their worries about the school's academics and finances. Moody's Investor Services last year downgraded the university to a Baa 3 rating, citing lack of cash on hand and last year's state budget stalemate. A Moody's official said Lincoln was the only public university in Pennsylvania it downgraded during the stalemate.

John Chikwem, an associate professor and a former dean at the university, said the school needs more financial and human resources.

"We got to a point where we have things in name, but there's nothing there in substance," Chikwem said of some academic programs.

Maureen Stokes, a university spokeswoman, said the students who are upset represent only a fraction of the university's roughly 2,100 undergraduates. "For every student that has concerns, there are just as many students who don't have concerns," she said.

Lincoln is tied with Morgan State University in Baltimore for 20th place in rankings of historically black colleges and universities, a rating that has fluctuated little in the last few years. Lincoln is among the top 20 percent of black colleges in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report.

But the sit-in was just the latest demonstration of dissatisfaction at Lincoln, the smallest of Pennsylvania's four state-related colleges.

Passions flared at a town-hall meeting between students and top administrators last month in which officials asked for patience. Members of the faculty, students, and alumni have said they have raised concerns over the last few years. They cite divisions and lack of dialogue between university administrators and stakeholders.

Following a national trend among black colleges in the last few years, Lincoln's enrollment is up, but it has lost faculty members and staff.

The faculty is scheduled to vote next month on whether to form a faculty counsel as a place professors can take their concerns. Current and former faculty members describe low morale, depleted academic departments, and exclusion from decision-making that drive their colleagues out.

"Every time I turn around, this person's leaving and this person is looking for another job," said Charles Pettaway, the faculty representative to the board of trustees.

Faculty members see a "great lack of vision" from administrators, partly due to a lack of consistent leadership, Pettaway said. The last permanent president, Robert Jennings, left in 2014 after his comments seemingly blaming women for sexual assaults against them gained national attention.

The association and the school's faculty union also issued a symbolic vote of no confidence against Jennings, because of declining enrollment, inadequate fund-raising, and staff turnover during his nearly three years at the university. An acting president and the current interim president followed Jennings' exit.

Several students said they and their peers have had multiple academic advisers whose advice, at times, ended up keeping them on campus longer. The board's faculty representative acknowledged that has occurred "sometimes," but said students also need to take responsibility for their academic careers.

Richard Green, the interim president, said, "There may be some cases where students might not have been able to engage with individual faculty members, but we're working to remedy the situation."

Lloyd said officials are committed to setting aside money to address concerns, but she added that the university does not have the funds Pennsylvania's three other state-related schools do.

Lincoln receives approximately 25 percent of its budget from the state, about $14 million this year, and relies on tuition for the bulk of the rest, so it is vulnerable to the whims of state government and fluctuating enrollment. Its roughly $35 million endowment pales in comparison with those of the other state-related schools; Pennsylvania State University's is more than $2 billion.

Students, faculty, and administrators say they are proud of Lincoln's history, want it to be its best, and are hopeful about its potential.

Lloyd said the search is on for the next president. She expects a leader to be named in April.

"We want to be able to bring someone to this institution that we feel can continue to turn around a lot of the issues that have been going on for several decades here at Lincoln University," she told students.