Cheyney University, which has struggled with academic and financial woes for years, on Tuesday announced plans to partner with Thomas Jefferson University, Starbucks, and others in creating a new African American-focused institute that will promote the school's legacy as the nation's oldest historically black college.
The Cheyney University Institute for the Contemporary African American Experience follows a key recommendation from a Cheyney task force looking to develop a new business model for the beleaguered school.
It will explore issues related to race, ethnicity, access, and diversity in American society; present potentially new research and internship and job opportunities for students and staff; and seek to position the university as a national leader in finding answers to some of today's problems, Cheyney president Aaron A. Walton said.
"We're in this for the long haul," Walton said. "We're transforming Cheyney for the future."
He announced the plan on the school's 275-acre Chester and Delaware Counties campus, surrounded by dignitaries including Gov. Wolf, legislators, the superintendent of the Chester-Upland School District, and Stephen K. Klasko, CEO of Jefferson.
The partnership with Jefferson, which includes a medical college and hospitals, means new pathways to graduate degrees in the medical profession for Cheyney students, as well as research work for faculty and students, looking initially at health disparities among diverse communities in the Philadelphia region.
"Cheyney is here to stay and is only going to get better," Klasko said, drawing applause.
The institute also plans to conduct research with the national Starbucks Foundation, after the coffee chain came under intense scrutiny this year when one of its Philadelphia stores called the police on two African American men who were sitting there but had not purchased any products.
And Epcot Crenshaw, a West Chester-based company that focuses on the environmental impact of food production, will relocate its headquarters to the Cheyney campus.
For Cheyney, the partnerships could bring much-needed money and prestige. Founded in 1837, the university has a storied history but lost more than half its enrollment over the last decade, educating just over 600 students last spring.
The school last year was in danger of losing its accreditation, almost a certain death knell, but got a year's reprieve from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body. Cheyney must submit an updated report on its progress to the commission by Sept. 1 and will learn later this year whether it will have its accreditation renewed.
"We are optimistic that we are making the level of progress that will encourage them to look favorably on accreditation," Walton said.
All the partnerships will be aimed at fostering excellence in academics, character development, and social responsibility — and develop new revenue streams, Walton said.
Epcot Crenshaw, for example, plans to rent three to five acres of campus property for a laboratory and technology demonstration facilities, administrative offices, greenhouses, labs, and new aquaponics research and production areas. The university and firm plan to jointly seek research funding for the science programs.
C. Satish Smith, company CEO, said the firm has been working with Cheyney faculty and students for a decade and now can develop a more streamlined approach.
"It is a good opportunity for us to be an anchor on the campus," he said. "We really want to create a bridge that strengthens the students' ability to compete for jobs."
Cynthia Shapira, chair of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said she hopes the new partnerships serve as a model not only for Cheyney but also the 13 other universities in the system, many of which face financial challenges.
"After facing some difficult challenges in recent years," Wolf told the crowd, "the Cheyney University you're in right now is on a new path."
The school has struggled with deficits and years of mismanagement. The state system last year agreed to forgive $30 million in loans to Cheyney if it balances its budget in each of the next four years, with a warning that it would be the last financial lifeline. Walton said Cheyney is on track to meet that goal this year. Some hard decisions have been made, including bowing out of the NCAA.
The school also continues to work with the U.S. Department of Education on rectifying $29 million in mishandled financial aid funds, discovered in 2015, he said.
Walton said he expects enrollment to bottom out this year, with fewer than 700 students coming in the fall, and then begin to climb as Cheyney rebuilds its image and launches new efforts. He hopes the announcement about the institute will attract students who may be on the fence about Cheyney.
"We have to shrink to grow," Walton said. "This has been our year of refocusing and adjusting, and now we're going to forge ahead."
Cheyney also has changed its enrollment strategy. In recent years, it has accepted just about everyone, operating like an open-enrollment university. The school now will seek to attract higher-caliber students with more aggressive recruiting and scholarships, he said, while still maintaining its mission as a school of opportunity for some students who may be denied experience elsewhere.
In the past, only 44 percent of its freshmen made it to sophomore year, the lowest rate in the state university system. And less than 20 percent have gone on to graduate within six years.
Alumni at the event were excited.
"We are about to rise up from the ashes like a phoenix," said Alphonso Coleman Jr., a retired teacher and 1972 Cheyney graduate, who is president of Cheyney's national alumni association. "This is a fantastic opportunity for the university, for potential students. … It will be a driving force to encourage young people to come to Cheyney."