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Head of new Cheyney panel puts priority on funding

Cheyney University has suffered from a lack of funding, and now it's up to the state, the alumni, and the community to fill the void, said the incoming chairman of a new advisory board for the school.

Cheyney University has suffered from a lack of funding, and now it's up to the state, the alumni, and the community to fill the void, said the incoming chairman of a new advisory board for the school.

The fact that the historically black university hasn't built a new dorm in more than 30 years is proof, said H. Patrick Swygert, former president of Howard University, a historically black school in Washington.

"At the risk of sounding like it's all about funding, a good part of it is about funding," said Swygert, a Philadelphia native and former Temple University executive who stepped down last June as president of Howard.

Cheyney and its parent organization, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, plan to formally announce the creation of the panel and the appointment of Swygert and four other members on campus tomorrow.

While the state and the legislature should help with more funding, the university also can expect more from its alumni, Swygert said in a telephone interview.

"The university needs to demonstrate support of its own community," he said. "Let's mount a focused, substantial fund-raising campaign."

Cheyney in 2007-08 collected $160,432 from its alumni, the lowest figure among the 14 schools in the state system.

To be fair, Cheyney also has the smallest enrollment, with 1,488 students.

Overall, the university collected $903,173 in donations from corporations, foundations, individuals, alumni, and others last year.

It can do better despite a difficult economy, Swygert said.

While at Howard, he led the largest capital campaign ever by an African American institution, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The $275 million, five-year effort resulted in myriad improvements for the school, including new laboratories, computers, conference rooms, an exhibition gallery, and about 300 scholarships. Trustees at Howard initially had planned to set a $100 million goal for the campaign, but Swygert told them to aim higher.

Swygert noted that the new panel would not be paid. He said he had been assured by both Robert W. Bogle, chairman of Cheyney's board of trustees, and John C. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the state system, that the panel would operate autonomously.

"We're not on anyone's payroll," he said. "They want a straight, hard analysis."

The state system has been helping the school dig out of a $2 million deficit and improve financial operations. Last summer, state officials found sloppy bookkeeping and suspended direct credit-card purchasing.

The state also has decided to pump in $50 million from its construction fund to build a new residence hall, renovate the science building, and make other upgrades, Cavanaugh said last week.

The advisory panel will look at operations and at what other resources are necessary to help the school thrive, he said.

It also will try to help Cheyney improve public relations: "How do we get the community at large to rally to Cheyney's aid?" Swygert asked

He acknowledged Cheyney's six-year graduation rate: Fewer than a third of full-time, first-time freshmen graduate in six years.

But Swygert, like others, said that Cheyney - which sits in Delaware and Chester Counties - gave underprivileged inner-city students a chance at a college education. More than half of the students hail from Philadelphia, many from the underperforming city schools.

While the graduation rate is not as high as it should be, he said the school's special mission must be considered.

"You're not failing. You're fulfilling a mission in a very difficult set of circumstances," he said. "That's a worthy mission that warrants community support."

He cited the school's assets, including its leadership, support from Cavanaugh, attractive campus, history, and roster of distinguished alumni - including Bogle, publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune.

Cheyney president Michelle Howard-Vital said in an e-mail response to The Inquirer that she welcomed input from the "esteemed" panel.

"You can never receive too much advice," wrote Howard-Vital, who has been at Cheyney's helm for nearly two years. She answered questions in an e-mail but declined to be interviewed.

Also on the panel with Swygert are: Shirley A. R. Lewis, former president of Paine College, a historically black school in Augusta, Ga.; Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund; Frank G. Pogue, interim president of Chicago State University and former president of Edinboro University, part of Pennsylvania's state system; and Leonard L. Haynes III, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.