Cheyney University, the nation's oldest historically black college and a school nearly at the brink of collapse, got a key reprieve Friday when a regional education panel allowed the university to keep its accreditation while it struggles to right its course.
The school had been on probation and at risk of losing accreditation because of its troubled finances, abysmal academic record, and unstable leadership. Such a loss would have made Cheyney students ineligible for state and federal tuition aid and almost certainly would have forced the storied school to close. But the Middle States Commission on Higher Education averted that outcome by extending its probation for a year, giving the college more time to balance its budget and stabilize its operations. The university has been on probation since 2015.
Cheyney president Aaron A. Walton on Friday said he was delighted to learn that the school would hold on to its accreditation while its top administrators, trustees, and the state board of governors work to chart a path to stability.
"The journey of the thousand miles begins with the first step, and this is the first step," he said.
Robert W. Bogle, the longtime chairman of Cheyney's council of trustees and a Cheyney alumnus, also heralded the panel's decision, which he said reflected its faith in the school's future.
"This gives us an opportunity to right the wrongs and go on with our continued mission as a school of opportunity for those who have been denied an education," he said. "It also means that we have a lot of work to do."
As the Inquirer and Daily News reported earlier this week, Cheyney has been in deep crisis, buffeted by plummeting enrollment, punishing debt, and declining academic measures. The 180-year-old university, one of 14 in the state system, has struggled for decades, but in recent years, poor management and lax oversight have further eroded the school's position.
But Middle States, citing "significant progress" and "good-faith effort" to correct longstanding problems, allowed the school more time to improve. The university will remain in the "show cause" category because of its troubled finances and will have to submit another report on its progress by Sept. 1, said Walton.
Students and faculty were cheered by the news.
"We're relieved that Cheyney's accreditation remains intact," said B.J. Mullaney, president of Cheyney's faculty union. "This is one step in the process of Cheyney's recovery, and we as faculty and coaches look forward to collaborating and continuing to move forward to do what's best for our students."
The school faces continuing hurdles. Cheyney has run a deficit nearly every year for more than a decade, and its debt now exceeds $25 million. In August, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education agreed to forgive a $30 million loan to the school if it balances its budget in each of the next four years. That is a challenging proposition, given its finances, but one that Walton has vowed to achieve.
Walton, a retired executive from health insurer Highmark, took the helm of the troubled university, which straddles Delaware and Chester Counties, in May. He got to work quickly and drafted a plan to address the shortcomings that had threatened the school's accreditation.
Serious challenges remain. Cheyney is under investigation by the Justice Department for mishandling $29 million in financial aid funds, a sum nearly equal to its annual budget and money it could be required to pay back. It faces additional scrutiny for raiding more than $3.4 million in scholarship funds and other restricted accounts to balance its budget, in possible violation of state and federal law. The university has since returned the money, but authorities are investigating how it was taken in the first place. And Walton must make $7.5 million in cuts to the university budget this year to avert a deficit.
Cynthia Shapira, head of the state board of governors, said Friday that Walton had made "extraordinary progress" in his brief tenure as president. At the same time, she said, "significant challenges remain, and more difficult decisions will have to be made."
She pledged to work with Walton and others to ensure "a strong, vibrant future for Cheyney."
Late Friday, Gov. Wolf, too, weighed in, vowing to work with Walton and the state university system to "create a path forward for Cheyney."
The governor said he wanted to build on the school's rich history, address its financial challenges and find a way for it to remain open.